Every Chinese person has a thing for bai luobuo, or daikon. Bai luobuo which means “white carrot” in Chinese, is translated as Chinese turnip or Chinese radish. You’ll see it in the Chinese market. It’s not the best looking vegetable. It resembles a dirty overgrown carrot that has never seen the sun. It is white, long, knobbly and slightly hairy. Fun fact: there’s 18th century Japanese daikon erotic art.
Let’s hear it for the bai luobuo. It’s a versatile tuber. It’s also delicious. Raw in salad, it tastes like sharp, bitter, and sweet. Stewed, it turns translucent and it becomes buttery soft. But what every Chinese person cannot resist is the lo bak go, which is translated to “turnip cake,” where daikon is combined with dried shrimp and rice flour, shaped and steamed into a pillow that is then sliced and fried until golden. Arguably, lo bak go is the most decadent incarnation of the Chinese turnip. There’s a gooey, molten quality to lo bak go. It melts in the mouth. It’s succulent, earthy from the daikon, redolent of the sea from the shrimp.
Another way to say radish is cai tou (菜頭), which in the Hokkien dialect, prominent in Chinese, is pronounced “chhài-thâu” In Hokkien, it’s a homophone for fortune. Homophones are popular around New Year. 好彩頭. hó-chhái-thâu in Hokkien, means good luck. But lo bak go is too delectable to be limited to an annual event. In every Chinese restaurant for dim sum, you’ll see families demolishing plates of it. In Taiwan, where Hokkien is one of the national dialects, it’s eaten regularly for breakfast. A Chinese person can be three years old or ninety, but if they’re worth their salt they’ll go for the lo bak go first.
But beware of being greedy. The stuff is rich. And daikon, while being nutritious and detoxifying, is also gassy. As children (and as adults) we have fallen prey to lo bak go gluttony, which has occasionally led to lo bak go indigestion. This happens when we have tried to eat the entire cake and then some.
To eat lo bak go out is wonderful. To make it at home is a revelation. Most Chinese families who have access to lo bak go don’t make their own, but here, in Ireland, where lo bak go is rare, many, many people, especially the Taiwanese, will make it at home to scratch their lo bak go itch. The home-style version is usually more astringent and full of radish and other good things. If you prefer the softer, silky dim sum version, just add more rice flour to the recipe below.
We ask you to get a daikon that weighs half a kilo. This is how they usually are. The ones at the Asia Market were massive today. They were monster daikon. One of these would make double our recipe. Most Chinese people would have absolutely no problem with that.
Also, this is one of our all-our favourite dim sums of all time. If you’re ready, prepare yourself for some umami brunch paradise.
Notes: This isn’t going to be a recipe that will be perfect the first time. Delicious, always, but aesthetically perfect, maybe not. Centuries of Chinese people have been making lo bak go by instinct and handfuls. You’ll want more starch for a pillowy texture, more vegetable for something that’s more flavorful. We adapted our recipe from the indispensable blog, the Woks of Life, which uses more radish than usual, and also loaf pan instead of a cake pan. It will taste more of radish but also may tend to fall apart. However, loaf pan lo bak go slices nicely.
Lo Bak Go (Turnip Cake)
- 280g rice flour
- 10 tbsps wheat starch
- 470 ml water
- 2 large white radish
- 470 ml water from soaking the dried shrimps (see below)
- 1 spring onions sliced
- 165g dried shrimps (soaked & chopped) with the water reserved.
- 165g dried Chinese mushrooms (soaked & diced small)
- 2 tsps sea salt
- 2 tsps sugar
- 2 tsps sesame oil
- 2 tsps white pepper
- 2 tsps sweet rice wine
- oil for frying, such as Donegal rapeseed.
1) Heat and add oil for stir fry (spring onions, dried shrimps and dried mushroom till fragrant and until golden brown.
2) Add turnips and seasoning to taste till well combined. Cover and cook until tender and translucent for about 15 minutes.
3) Sift the rice flour and wheat starch into a bowl with soaked dried scallops and shrimp water or just plain water to make a thin batter.
4) Turn off the heat and allow the wok cool down. Pour batter and stir them until slightly thickened.
5) Pour the mixture into a well-greased foil containers or Loaf tins. Cover, and steam for 1 hour. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool slightly. Keep refrigerated and consume within 5 days.
6) Cut into pieces. Heat a pan and oil over a medium high heat. Transfer turnip cake slices one by one to a pan until both side are deep golden brown.
Dip into the sauce of your choice. (Normally a chilli oil and soy sauce is best.) A perfect comfort food with rice porridge (congee) or just as part of a larger dimsum meal.
Tip: You can store your lo bak go in the loaf pan or take out and wrap in cling film and store in the refrigerator or freeze in slices and fry it later. It won’t last long.