Lo Bak Go

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Utamaro, “Grating a Radish”

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.

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Photo courtesy of Thibaud Harang

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.

normal daikon

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Our daikon

 

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) 

Ingredients

  • 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.

Method

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.

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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.

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Fishy Flavour

Kevin Hui’s father came to Dublin from London when his mother got a job here as a nurse. Eventually both parents were working at Chopsticks on Dame Street. In the late 1960s, they eventually opened up their own place, Lotus House, in Dun Laoghaire. “Everyone came through Lotus House,” Kevin explains. “Guys and girls dated, some of them got married and had kids who would come work there after.” In fact, Lotus House is a little like Genghis Khan of Chinese Ireland. Anyone born in Dublin with Chinese blood likely has a Lotus House connection.

Kevin, who is mild mannered, tall, and has an easy laugh, studied in London. His Irish is fluent, his Chinese, not so much. “I’m Irish,” Kevin tells me. That’s the thing that throws me, because I grew up with people who looked like me. We sulked and listened to Nirvana at the local Sunday Chinese school. Kevin was Irish and then came home and grew bean sprouts in the bathtub. “Also, I never wanted to have a restaurant,” Kevin tells me. When Kevin’s family closed Lotus House and opened up a new restaurant, Kevin had a master’s in biochemistry from London’s University College. But as the oldest child, Kevin moved home to help his parents. It’s a duty that many Chinese kids feel and many of us don’t fulfill.

It was Kevin’s idea to do a fine-dining establishment as was had in Asia, London, the States, and elsewhere. It was also Kevin’s notion to do Sichuan cooking, even though his family was from Hong Kong. Most people in Ireland who had Chinese restaurants were from Hong Kong, migrating as they did from Belfast. For better or for worse, Cantonese food here had nothing to do with the subtle, expensive, seafood flavours.

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In China, Sichuan is an entirely different and marvellous place. It’s fiery food, distinguished by fresh flavours and cold dishes. Freezing cucumber and chicken that pops, plus the famous peppercorns that set the mouth alight. Another thing: many of my Chinese friends have likened the lilting Sichuan dialect to Irish, and the Sichuan culture is infused with musicality, country rhythms, and magic. Sichuan’s capital city, Chengdu, is where all the ghosts come to live after they die.

When China Sichuan opened in 2008, it was at the height of the Celtic Tiger, but when Chinese restaurants were still serving chips and chicken balls. China Sichuan was going to be something different. “Oh yeah,” says Kevin, “Then the earthquake happened.”

Kevin had lined up Sichuan chefs when the greatest earthquake of the century hit China. Woops. They recovered. Six years later, they moved to Sandyford, to a desolate location. At the China Sichuan Sandyford, an hour from town on the LUAS, one is surrounded by empty office buildings and the wind blows fiercely. But here, Kevin tapped into the authentically Chinese mentality. Many Chinese abroad believe lao-wai (our term for foreigners) prize convenience over quality. However, a Chinese person will travel miles for a great meal. This is especially true in Hong Kong, where Chinese people will take three trains, walk through a garage, ring a buzzer, and say a secret password, if the dinner is good enough. In fact, the journey there only sharpens the savour of the food to follow.

The result? China Sichuan has been beloved in this country for many years for making authentic and luxurious Chinese food, and not compromising itself. Fresh local ingredients. No takeaways. Rabbit stirfried with green tea. Dublin prawns in salted egg yolk. The Sandyford premises are chic but not trendy, beautiful wood and a sommelier.

Kevin’s a modest guy. He talks mostly about his mistakes. He says, “One mistake that I made was trying to literally translate all our dishes. Like Yu Hsiang pork. For years, at Lotus House, it was ‘garlic sauce’ pork.” Yu-hsiang, or Yu xiang, is a tradition in Sichuan and Hunan cooking. It flavours pork, beef, chicken, and possibly most popularly, aubergine. Translated, it means “fish flavor” but yu-hsiang is never coupled with fish. Kevin decided, in the interest of authenticity to return the dish to its roots. “Once I translated it from the Chinese into Fish flavor pork, no one ordered it any more.”

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Yu-hsiang sauce is chili and fermented soy bean paste. It is attributed to Sichuan and Hunan. The story goes that a wife of a fisherman had the usual sauce waiting for when he came back with his catch, and when he came home fish-free, she poured it over some meat and called it yu-hsiang.

I have another theory. “Yu” 魚is the Chinese character for fish. “Xian” 鮮 which in Chinese for centuries has been translated as fragrant but which I have always attributed to seafood, and which has a fish radical. What’s more, Xian translates to the Japanese term umami, a flavor with which many people are familiar, and both xian and umami abound in seaweed, shellfish, fish roe, and anchovies. It is also abundant in mushrooms and fermented things, in soy sauce, miso, and fermented bean paste. When we describe something as Xian or umami, we say that something has that inexplicable flavor of the sea. But some people don’t like be reminded of the fishy connection.

Fish flavor pork is umami pork. Take the hour long journey out to Sandyford to eat it.

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RECIPE

Fried Pork Shreds in Garlic Sauce/ “Fish Flavored Pork Shreds”/ Yu Xiang Rou

Pork:

  • 200g pork steak

Marinade:

  •  1 egg white
  •  15g corn flour
  •  A pinch of salt
  •  1 tbsp water

To finish:

  • 6 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 10g finely chopped ginger
  • 10g finely chopped garlic
  •  15g Sichuan garlic sauce*
  •  15g granulated sugar
  •  2 tbsp Sichuan vinegar *
  •  2 tbsp dark soy sauce
  •  1 tbsp Shaoxing wine or white wine
  •  5 tbsp chopped scallion
  •  5 tbsp corn flour mixed with 5 tbsp Water

1: Take the pork and cut it into thin slices. Then cut the slices into very thin shreds

2: Place the pork shreds in a bowl with the marinade and mix thoroughly. Let marinate for five minutes.

3:  Heat a wok on high heat and pour in the vegetable oil. When the oil is hot, (you can tell as the oil starts to smoke), add the pork and stir fry quickly for around 30 – 45 seconds, until the pork turns white in colour. (This process is called “velveting” and a common step in Chinese cuisine. When you run strips on meat in oil until it is partially cooked, it softens and silkens the meat, hence the term “to velvet.”)

4: Drain the excess oil from the wok.

5: Add the ginger, garlic and Sichuan garlic sauce until the oil turns red and you can smell the garlic and ginger.

6: Add the sugar, vinegar, soy sauce, and wine and stir fry for a further minute.

7: Finally add the scallions and cornstarch mixture. Stir fry for another 10 seconds and serve on to a serving dish, with some steamed rice

* China Sichuan imports their own sauce and vinegar but similar versions are available in your nearest Chinese supermarket. Kwanghi and Mei like Lao Ganma sauce, and a Chinese black vinegar like Chekiang.