tevere: Jihae, solemn with hint of smile (Default)
[personal profile] tevere
Usually for Chinese New Year my extended family go out for a reunion dinner and call it a day, but now that I have a kid, and having experienced a truly beautiful Christmas at [personal profile] isilya's in December, I thought this year I'd have some family and friends over and try my hand at some traditional foods. So I researched a bunch of recipes, I called my mother, I called a friend from Guangdong who knows how to cook, I made forays to Asian supermarkets armed with a Chinese dictionary app (since my accent is so bad nobody ever knows what I'm saying), I made a couple of disastrous practice attempts and ate them all, I found more recipes, The Boy and I yelled at each other as we struggled to get multiple time-sensitive dishes cooked at the same time while the guests waited-- and after all that, it actually turned out really well! We had:

- Yee sang
- Pan-fried lor bak go (radish cake)
- Spicy hokkein noodles with tofu and snow peas
- Mushrooms and hair moss with smoked oysters
- San choy bau with a filling of fried tempeh, enoki mushroom and water chestnuts
- Tea eggs (contributed by someone else)
- Some kind of traditional Taiwanese mixed vegetables (contributed by someone else)
- Battered, pan-fried nian gao (sticky rice cake)
- Pandan hun kwee (mung bean) jelly
- Almond biscuits (from the store)
- Mango white tea

(Next year someone else is hosting, though.)

Rather typically, by the time I realised I hadn't any photos of all the finished dishes laid out on the table, it was far too late. The hordes had already descended! The only reasonable photo I have is, ironically, of the one dish that doesn't hold a particular emotional connection for me. I never ate yee sang growing up-- my sister thinks it caught on in our community after I'd already left home-- and I've had it only since going to reunion dinners as an adult. Yes, the version we made didn't have any fish (the key symbolic element). Yes, it didn't have the traditional 27 elements. Yes, we used packet fried noodles because we couldn't find the proper auspiciously-shaped crackers. It was still fucking delicious. I did tell people not to toss it too high, because I didn't want to be picking shredded vegetables out of the furniture, but we managed to toss it pretty thoroughly.

Yee sang
Red cabbage, zucchini, bean sprouts, pickled ginger, lime, pomelo, carrot, cucumber, fried noodles, peanuts, sesame seeds

The most tricky dish, and the one I was most keen on making, was my childhood favourite: lor bak go, a savoury, steamed cake made from rice flour and white radish. You can get it at yum cha, pan-fried to crisp deliciousness. When I called my mother to ask how to make it, she tsked at me and said, "Too difficult!" and "Vegetarian? Impossible!" My mother is prone to hysteria and exaggeration, but she was partially right: it was a gigantic pain in the ass, even if that was mostly the learning curve rather than the actual process. But after much experimentation, and a temporary relinquishing of my vegetarian principles, I'm pretty happy with the final result:

Lor bak go
We fried and ate the leftovers for breakfast. I know, those slices are way too thick.

It seems the greatest fear surrounding lor bak go is the texture: people are terrified it won't set. And since 'successful' lor bak go has a fairly wide range of textures depending on how you want to eat it (softer for steamed, firmer for pan-fried), the recipes vary wildly in their proportions of radish, flour and liquid, which makes for additional anxiety. What you're aiming for is something that will set, that isn't rubbery, and isn't overly heavy. I chose a ratio of radish, flour and liquid that produces a reliably firm, fairly dense cake that fries up well, i.e. the way I like it, with minimal stress and guesswork.

To begin, you procure yourself a radish. Winter is the best season for sweet, crisp radishes. I used to wonder why lor bak go recipes are always for truly enormous quantities, but when I purchased a single radish the size of a newborn baby, I realised why. You can use smaller radishes, of course.

My radish stomps on these puny radishes. (Image from here)

Next, grate your enormous radish into a large, cheesecloth-lined pot or bowl. If you're grating with a box grater, be prepared to set aside an hour. Or to make it go a bit faster, use a food processor with the grating attachment, or a mandoline (my preferred method). Given my hatred of grating, my thoughts went immediately to whether or not you could just chuck the whole thing in a blender and puree it, but apparently that leads to leaden sadness. Strands of radish give a nice, springy texture. So stick with the elbow grease.

Radishes vary in water content depending on age and quality, which can drastically alter the thickness of your uncooked batter (and the texture of the finished product). To minimise guesswork of the "keep adding water until it looks about right" variety, drain the water out of the grated radish by tying up the cheesecloth, giving it a good initial squeeze, and leaving it to hang above the pot or bowl to catch the drained juice. Half an hour of hanging should do it. Don't throw out the radish juice-- that's where the flavour is!

The Boy said this looked like I'd hung a pocong in the kitchen. Very inauspicious.

While the radish is hanging, prepare the flavourings. Lap cheong sausage is the main flavour component, and you can add a selection from dried mushrooms, dried scallops, dried shrimp, dried smoked oysters, shallots, and spring (green) onions. You can basically use as much or as little as you like in the way of inclusions, but general consensus seems to be that the more you use, the more delicious the final product will be! (I guess boiled radish on its lonesome is not a highly sought-after flavour.) Reconstitute the dried ingredients with a soak in hot water, reserving the soaking water. Finely dice the ingredients.

(A word on vegetarianising this dish: look, I tried a vegetarian version with mushrooms and spring onions. It was incredibly disappointing. Dull, flat, bitter. If you leave out the meat, you're going to have to compensate by really ramping up the salt, sugar and other condiments, and it's probably still going to be one-dimensional in comparison. I hate to say it, but it's true.)

Mise en place
Shiitake mushrooms, shrimp, lap cheong, XO sauce, dried oysters, spring onions

Next, fry the inclusions, adding to the pan in the following order: lap cheong, reconstituted dried ingredients, fresh ingredients. This way the dried stuff really gets to soak up that meaty, oily, delicious flavour from the sausage.


You can make lor bak go with just rice flour, but added starch improves the finished texture. I've tried cornflour (cornstarch), but I preferred the result from wheat starch. Wheat starch is the key ingredient in those translucent yum cha dumplings (har gow); depending on where you live, I imagine it could be a bit hard to find. I've heard you can also use arrowroot flour, tapioca starch or potato starch, in pretty much the same proportions. No need to sift, rice flour is so fine that I've never found lumps to be a problem.

Whatever you do, DO NOT USE GLUTINOUS RICE FLOUR. The Boy did this once, and I was scraping turnip-flavoured glue off the countertops and rice cooker for weeks.

Regular rice flour has red writing on the packet! Glutinous rice flour is in GREEN. For this popular brand, anyway.

Next you cook the radish until soft in the appropriate amount of liquid, which is made up of radish juice, the liquid from the reconstituted dried ingredients, and perhaps a little water or stock if your radish was particularly dry. Remove the radish from the heat and let cool slightly before mixing in the flavourings, then the flour. I've tried this step a few different ways-- making up a slurry from the radish liquid and the flour, then adding that to the cooked radish; frying the radish rather than boiling it; adding the flour to the radish cooking the flour for a few minutes-- but unlike cooking a flour for a roux, it all seems to turn out much the same. You're looking for a thick paste rather than a pourable batter.

Taste the raw mixture for seasoning, or you can fry a small piece of it and taste it that way.

Apparently there's a traditional lor bak go pan, which I was urged to use for best results. I found a springform cake pan worked just fine, as did a non-stick loaf pan-- and the loaf pan also produces the perfect size for slicing and frying. If you oil the pan beforehand, the cooked cake slips out with just a little coaxing from a knife around the side. If your tins aren't non-stick, baking paper might be good insurance.

Raw batter
Yes, this is a lot of radish cake. It disappears quickly.

You can steam the cake in a rice cooker, or in a large pot with an inch or so of boiling water at the bottom. Some people put a cloth between the lid and the cake, pilaf-style, but I didn't have a problem with condensate dripping onto the surface of the cakes. Test for doneness by inserting a chopstick: it should come out without large amounts of white goop sticking to it (a tiny bit of stickiness is fine, just not wet-looking stuff). This could take over an hour, depending on the heat you produce in your steamer. I was tempted to try the pressure cooker; maybe next time.

The problem with rectangular loaf pans is they require a huge steamer

For best results, leave overnight in the fridge before unmoulding, slicing and frying. You can freeze it if you've made a huge quantity and want to eat it later, just thaw it out before slicing and frying it. Cut into even, 1cm thick slices for frying, not wedges. Use medium-high heat to get a little peanut oil nice and hot, and try and get an even brown sear on both sides. Too much oil will make the surface greasy; you're aiming for a light, crispy outside.


Lor Bak Go (Cantonese Steamed Radish Cake)

2.25kg radish (1 very large radish!)*
435g rice flour
65g wheat starch
1.5 tsp brown sugar
700ml radish juice + liquid from mushrooms + water as necessary
3 sticks lap cheong Chinese sausage
6 dried mushrooms, soaked then diced
75 grams dried shrimp, soaked and coarsely chopped if large
4 spring onions, diced
Peanut oil
3 tsp XO sauce
1/2 tsp five spice powder
2 tsp coarse salt (to taste)
1 tsp ground white pepper

1. Grate the radish into cheesecloth, hang and drain. Reserve radish liquid.

2. Reconstitute mushrooms and shrimp in hot water. Drain, reserving liquid. Dice finely. Dice the Chinese sausage and spring onions.

3. Fry the sausage in a little peanut oil, then add the mushrooms, shrimp, spring onions and XO sauce and fry. Remove from heat and let cool.

4. Place the grated radish into a large pot with the sugar and 700ml of liquid made up of the radish juice, liquid from the mushrooms and shrimp, and water or stock as necessary. Cook for approximately 15 minutes, or until soft.

5. Remove the radish from the heat and let rest for about 10 minutes until slightly cooled.

6. Measure rice flour, wheat starch, five spice, salt and pepper into a bowl.

7. Add the mushroom, shrimp, sausage and spring onion mixture to the radish, and then add the flours. Stir until evenly incorporated into a thick paste.

8. Taste and re-season as necessary.

9. Spoon into tins and steam for about an hour, or until cooked.

10. Let cool in the tins before unmoulding. Preferably leave overnight in the fridge before unmoulding and slicing.

*For different amounts of radish, your flour should be approximately one-fifth the weight of radish, and liquid one-quarter the weight of the radish.

Date: 2013-02-18 12:56 pm (UTC)
vi: (kitty closeup)
From: [personal profile] vi
Ooh, the CNY spread sounds delicious! And impressive that you guys made so much of it. *__* Lor bak go sounds intensive!

Random thoughts: For flavouring a vegetarian version, I wonder how chai poh (preserved radish) would work -- I like it with the similar chai tau kway, which I've made a couple of times! Or Tianjin dong cai?
Edited (aiyah, html fail) Date: 2013-02-18 12:56 pm (UTC)

Date: 2013-02-18 10:06 pm (UTC)
kake: The word "kake" written in white fixed-font on a black background. (Default)
From: [personal profile] kake
Wow, that looks brilliant (oh, and I love your table top too).

Date: 2013-02-18 11:05 pm (UTC)
qian: Tiny pink head of a Katamari character (Default)
From: [personal profile] qian
Yum! It sounds like it was a lot of work, but it looks totally worth it!

Date: 2013-02-19 03:03 am (UTC)
norah: Monkey King in challenging pose (Default)
From: [personal profile] norah
You did all this. And work. And baby. I am in awe.

Date: 2013-02-21 04:19 pm (UTC)
norah: Hands clasped together, upraised (solidarity)
From: [personal profile] norah
I hear that. God, do I ever. Solidarity, sister.

Date: 2013-02-19 03:08 am (UTC)
afrikate: Tons and tons of mardi gras beads--guess somebody earned them the old-fashioned way. (whoring myself out)
From: [personal profile] afrikate
I love lor bak go, have since I was introduced to it at dim sum with the Chinese club lo these many years ago. I'm now going to have to try this, though it means I'll be spending some quality time in the aisles of the Chinese grocer. Thanks!

Date: 2013-02-19 04:10 am (UTC)
torachan: (Default)
From: [personal profile] torachan
Yum, that all sounds really good!

Also aha! So rice flour could be found at a Chinese market? We have people coming in and asking about rice flour fairly often, but the only kind used in Japanese cooking is mochi flour, which is not what they're ever looking for. I never know where to tell them to look, but I will tell them try a Chinese market in the future.

Date: 2013-02-19 06:03 pm (UTC)
hebethen: (Default)
From: [personal profile] hebethen
From the sound of that you probably don't have a Korean supermarket in the area -- but if it's just that your customers don't know of it, Korean supermarkets would probably have it too. They stock pretty much everything from the major Asian countries (including south and southeast Asia, and I've even begun to notice some Turkish stuff popping up in my local one). And Latin American stuff too, probably catering to the local demographics as needed -- instead of "Korean" supermarket, they should probably be called "everyone whose domestic needs might not be adequately served by white American supermarkets".

Date: 2013-02-20 03:59 am (UTC)
torachan: (Default)
From: [personal profile] torachan
Yeah, I have seen those sort of "everything non-white" markets in places where there's not that large a population of each ethnicity to support their own market (I saw a huge one in Indiana that had Asian, Mexican, and middle eastern stuff all jumbled together).

I'm in Los Angeles, so there are actually tons of different individual ethnic markets around. It's just that the city is so spread out and my area is one where there has historically been a large Japanese population, so we have a ton of Japanese markets, but you have to go half an hour (or more) away to find any other Asian markets. I will keep in mind Koreatown, though, as that is somewhat closer than the Chinese area.

Date: 2013-02-20 03:51 am (UTC)
torachan: (Default)
From: [personal profile] torachan
Yeah, regular rice flour is just not used in Japanese cooking. We have some other Asian stuff, but not that (though maybe we should consider carrying it).

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