Food and friends. Isn’t that what the good life is about? June Tong, author of the “Popo’s Kitchen” cookbooks has been sharing her knowledge of Chinese cooking with the same group for 12 years. Almost every month, she and 16 friends gather to try new recipes and enjoy cooking together. Many bring more friends.
The men in the group are called “Tongies,” after her last name, and the women are called “Tongettes.” They will be cooking and laughing together soon for the start of the Lunar New Year — the Year of the Rat, which formally starts Jan. 25. Chances are, one will be making Tong’s recipe for lo bak go, Chinese turnip cake.
The translation doesn’t begin to explain the tastiness of this dish. The unheralded turnip (lo bak in Cantonese) is more commonly known locally as daikon, its name in Japanese.
This common vegetable is grated and cooked until tender, then mixed with many types of tasty, salty proteins, steamed, then fried.
You may be familiar with the turnip cake served at dim sum restaurants. Usually, it is made ahead of time, then grilled to order, until the sides are crispy and browned. It is commonly served at brunch or lunch, but makes a welcome side dish at dinner.
Tong’s recipe calls for a large variety of proteins, including Chinese sausage, Chinese bacon, char siu, dried shrimp, scallops or smoked ham, ground pork or roast pork.
Her generousity with the expensive meats and seafood she uses — no skimping — makes her recipe better than many restaurant versions.
It is called a cake because it is steamed in a cake pan, but there is only a hint of sweetness from the natural sweetness of the turnip and a touch of added sugar.
Tong often makes large batches of the filling base without the turnip and freezes it.
“You can use the same base for many dishes,” she explains. Use it to stuff taro cake, salty gin dui (fried balls of sweet rice flour), ma tai soo (buns with a flaky crust), ip jai (steamed sweet rice-flour dumplings), no mai fan (sticky sweet rice) or hom sui gok (deep-fried sweet rice-flour dumplings).
Copy those dim sum restaurants and make your turnip cake a day ahead and refrigerate to make it firm. Then it will be easy to fry for your friends at your new year’s party. Garnish with colorful Chinese parsley and green onions and ring in the Year of the Rat!
CHINESE TURNIP CAKE (LO BAK GO)
By June Tong
2 links Chinese sausage (lup cheong), finely diced
1/2 cup Chinese bacon (lap nyuk), finely diced, substitute ground pork or roast pork
1/2 cup char siu or smoked ham, finely diced
1 cup diced rehydrated dried black mushrooms
1/2 cup dried baby shrimp, soaked in water, substitute larger dried shrimp
3 pieces dried scallops, soaked and shredded
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1/2 teaspoon five-spice powder
1 teaspoon sugar
4 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
5 cups turnip (lo bak or daikon), peeled and roughly grated, about 1 large turnip
Heat a large frying pan or wok over medium. Cook lup cheong about 5 minutes.
Add bacon, char siu, mushrooms, shrimp, scallops, oyster sauce, five-spice and sugar. Stir-fry 3 to 4 minutes; set aside.
In a large wok, heat 2 tablespoons oil and cook grated turnip, chicken powder and salt on medium heat, covered, until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Do not drain liquid.
Add meat mixture; stir well. Over low heat, add 1-1/2 cups rice flour. Mix well to form a batter like a thick pancake batter, adding more flour or water as needed.
Oil an 8-by-8-inch baking pan or round cake pan. Fill with batter and smooth top. Steam 45 minutes, until cooked through. A knife or skewer inserted in center should comes out cleanly. Cool, cover and refrigerate overnight.
Remove from pan and cut into 2-inch squares. Heat last 2 tablespoons oil in frying pan over medium; brown squares on both sides, about 3 minutes each side. Garnish with onions and parsley; serve immediately. Makes 12 to 15 pieces.
Approximate nutritional information, per square: 220 calories, 10 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 25 mg cholesterol, 500 mg sodium, 26 g carbohydrate, 1 g fiber, 3 g sugar, 9 g protein.
Lynette Lo Tom cooks a Lunar New Year dinner with chefs Ed Kenney, Dave Caldiero and Alika Chung, 6 p.m. Jan 27 at Mud Hen Water. Cost is $100. Reservations: eventbrite.com (search for “Mud Hen Water.”)
Lynette Lo Tom, author of “Back in the Day,” is fascinated by old-fashioned foods. Contact her at 275-3004 or via instagram at brightlightcookery. Nutritional analysis by Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S.