The Handoff: Dim Sum at Home – Daikon Radish Cakes
By Jessie Chien
Guangzhou, Southern China – Every so often I come across an article or two about the availability of organic farming in China. For the most part these inspire little confidence. Until I can figure out a reliable source for organic meat and produce, I will continue to supplement occasional trips to the supermarket with plenty of visits to my neighborhood Chinese wet market. Although I’m not exactly sure where the food comes from, I know it’s fresh, somewhat local, in season, cheap, and reflects the local cuisine.
Lately, my market has been lush with greens, and over the last week and a half, spinach has made a sudden and abundant appearance at many stands. Even though it’s nearing squash season in the states, and food blogs are atwitter with recipes for apple pie and desserts involving nutmeg, the stacks of leafy greens haven’t gotten any smaller in China.
Browsing the aisles of the wet market with Valeria’s ingredients for Creamy Winter Squash Soup fresh in my mind, one winter-y vegetable did stand out to me, as stark and white as winter itself: the daikon. A large variety of radish that is grown and sold year-round in Asia, it is fundamentally more subtle than its small red western counterparts. However, its flavors turn more peppery in the summer, versus almost sweet in the winter. Right now, it’s neither too spicy nor all that sweet. The daikon is used in various preparations throughout Asia, from pickling to sautéing to steaming, and sometimes just shredded, raw.
With the daikon already on the scale and ideas of sofrito still prominent in my mind, I realized I had basically set myself up with a recipe for daikon radish cakes.
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The radish cake is a dish that is ten times tastier than its unfortunate name makes it sound. Served in dim sum restaurants both in China and at home in the US, it is made year-round thanks to the corresponding year-round availability of the daikon radish. It has also been a longstanding favorite of mine. A meat dish in disguise, the veggie radish patty is laced with fragrant Chinese sausage or fatty pork and plenty of Chinese aromatics like scallions, dried mushrooms, dried shrimp, and dried scallops. The “cake” is sliced into rectangular sections and eventually pan fried like a pot sticker before serving. And did I mention it’s traditionally served with a side of chili paste? Such a rock star made from of an otherwise dowdy root vegetable.
Despite having eaten radish cake countless times, I’ve never once tried making it on my own. A Google search produced various handy recipes and techniques, but as with dumpling-making, stir-frying, and egg roll wrapping, I turned to my mother.
Her response, via email, was slightly disheartening,
“I have tried [to make radish cake] a few times over a 30 year period, but never fully mastered it…. I won’t be surprised if you need to make it a few times to get the best batch.”
Maybe this was going to be harder than I thought.
Despite that hurdle, I was determined to press on. I was not going to let a few potential trials get in my way. So, after going back to the market and buying a few MORE daikon radishes, I was ready to create a seasonally appropriate, culturally relevant, and Relay applicable dish. True to my mother’s advice, it took a few batches over the course of a couple of days, another trip to the market, and consequently a few neighbors commenting on the wafting aroma drifting down the hall, until I found the best combination of ingredients and techniques for the type of radish cake I was imagining. One that made me think of Valeria and her Italian squash as well as my cab driver zipping around the streets of Guangzhou.
Note: There are countless variations on this cake, some sweeter, some with more sausages, some denser and others virtually 100% radish. I say, try your own versions until you get the one you like best.
Daikon Radish Cakes
Prep Time: 30 minutes, plus overnight to soak dry ingredients.
Cook Time: 1 hour 10 minutes (including steam time), plus 5 minutes pan fry
Total Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
Yield: 4-6 appetizer-sized servings
- 1 medium to large daikon, shredded
- 5 dried shiitake mushrooms
- 7 g (about 15 small) dried scallops
- 16g (about 30 medium) dried shrimp
- 2 large scallions (or baby leeks)
- 1 Chinese sausage
- 25g salt cured pork and fat, or about 1/2 cup, chopped
- 1 small piece of rock sugar* (or 3 teaspoons brown sugar)
- 125g rice flour, approx. 1 cup
- 2 Tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 cup water
*rock sugar is a very popular ingredient in Chinese cooking, and basically looks like pieces of crystalized rock candy that comes in a variety of sizes. If you can’t find rock sugar, it’s fine to use a few teaspoons of brown sugar.
- The night before, soak the shiitake mushrooms, dried scallops, and dried shrimp in small separate bowls. This can also be done a few hours in advance, but overnight soaking is optimal.
- Peel and shred daikon with a grater into a strainer lined with cheesecloth over a bowl. The daikon will give off a lot of liquid. Set aside to drain.
- In the meantime, drain the ingredients that soaked overnight. Make sure to squeeze as much water as possible from the mushrooms. Finely chop mushrooms, scallops, and shrimp, as well as the scallions (separating the whites and green parts), Chinese sausage, and cured pork.
- Warm a large non-stick skillet over medium high heat in preparation for your “sofrito.” Add 2 Tbsp. neutral-flavored cooking oil (I prefer grapeseed oil, but canola or vegetable oil is fine). Add mushrooms, scallops, shrimp, and scallions (white parts only). Saute for about five minutes, then add the sausage and pork. Turn heat to medium and stir occasionally for another five minutes, until the sofrito becomes more brown and is speckled with many small bubbles.
- In between stirring your sofrito, squeeze the cheesecloth with the daikon so the liquid drains into the bowl. You should be able to get the shredded daikon fairly dry. Set the liquid asid e- there should be around 3/4-1 cup, depending on the size of your daikon.
- Stir the drained, shredded daikon into the sofrito along with the scallion greens and rock sugar. At this point, it will look like a potato hash. Stir mixture until well incorporated, and allow to cook for about 7-8 more minutes.
- While the daikon mixture is cooking, measure out the rice flour and cornstarch into a medium bowl – it is very important to use rice flour and not all purpose flour or any other flour. Add the liquid drained from the daikon as well as one more cup of water into the flour and cornstarch and whisk thoroughly. Pour this liquid into the mixture on the stove, mixing the daikon sofrito with the flour-water mixture until evenly incorporated. The new mixture will look like a thick oatmeal or wet paste. Cook for an additional 5-7 minutes.
- Brush a 8-9″ round or square baking pan with oil. Turn off the stove, and pour the daikon mixture into the pan, using a spatula to smooth the surface until it looks even.
- Set the pan in a large steamer of any sort – metal, bamboo, rice cooker, or in my instance, a MacGuyver style heat-proof bowl set into a wok with water in the bottom – I set my pan on top of the bowl and then covered the whole contraption securely with foil.
- Steam the radish cake for 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted does not come up with clumps.
- Carefully remove the radish cake from the steamer – it will be VERY hot. Allow the cake to fully cool, for optimal results set it in the fridge for a few hours or even overnight. This will make the cake more firm and allow for better edges when cutting (although, you can proceed to the next step right away).
- Invert the cake onto a cutting board, and cut your radish cake into desired sizes. I prefer rectangular pieces that are around 2-3 inches.
- In a nonstick skillet, heat 2 Tablespoons of neutral-flavored oil. Traditionally, the Chinese like to use Peanut oil in cooking but I find the flavor to be a little intrusive. When hot, carefully lay several daikon radish cakes onto the pan, keeping the heat at Medium-High.
- Cook for about 3 minutes on each side, or until the bottoms are crispy and golden brown. Drain on a paper towel and then serve immediately with a side of chili paste.
- Enjoy, and think about what someone on the other side of the world is eating.
Jessie Chien lives in Guangzhou, China. She edits Chinglish for a living and in her free time likes to visit the wet markets around town. Visit her blog for more expat adventures in China.