Cover Ying Jee Club's turnip cake (Photo: Ying Jee Club)

Also known as radish cake, this Chinese New Year staple looks simple but is prone to error in the hands of the unpracticed. We speak to leading Hong Kong chefs for their insider tips

The platonic ideal of a turnip cake, that Chinese New Year staple, is not easy to achieve. While some prefer the simplicity of a steamed cake, I’d hazard that most prefer the extra levels of enjoyment when it’s pan-fried for a crisp outer layer to contrast with the softness and tenderness of the interior. The fragrance, flavour and texture of the turnip here is key, dancing with other ingredients such as Chinese sausage that lend crucial pops of umami. From selecting the right ingredients to getting your pan-frying on point, these Hong Kong chefs are sharing their knowledge for you to get your lor bak go to the next level. 

For a basic turnip cake recipe to base these tips off of, Kristina Cho shares hers in her cookbook, Mooncakes and Milk Bread. And if you prefer to leave it to the experts and buy a ready-made cake to cook at home, we’re not judging—we also have a list of Hong Kong’s best radish cakes and new year puddings to order this year.

Theresa Yiu, aka Dashijie

As the first apprentice of the late Pearl Kong Chen, Yiu is one of the most highly respected cooks in Hong Kong with a serious and detail oriented approach to food. Under her successful Dashijie brand, Yiu continues to stay true to her principles of using quality ingredients and never taking shortcuts; this year, she partnered with her own apprentice, chef Wong Wing-Keung of Man Wah at Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong, to create a new turnip cake product infused with aged mandarin peel.

Know your radishes

This is the 13th year that Yiu has been producing her own brand of new year cakes. "I normally use radish from China, but I’ve also used Japanese daikon since our second year of business. For either Chinese or Japanese radish, I always prefer the larger and heavier ones, which means the radishes are fresher and juicier," she says.

The difference between Chinese radish and Japanese daikon is that Chinese ones have a stronger radish taste whereas Japanese daikon is more juicy, a little bit sweeter but with arguably less flavour, she continues. "In Hong Kong, apart from the dominating mainland radish, you’ll also find Korean radish—but it’s not a significant player. Taiwanese radishes are also extremely good, but not price competitive and thus they are not readily available in Hong Kong. Personally, I prefer radish from mainland China, which is why 80 per cent of our radish cakes are using mainland Chinese radish, the rest being Japanese daikon."

An important step is to do an initial steaming of radish strips, to get the juice to mix with the flour.

How to eat

"If I make radish cake at home, the best taste is when the radish cake is just cooked and is still steaming hot. I normally eat the cake together with some fried white sesame and a bit of scallion, like in Cantonese dim sum," says Yiu. "The most common way is to eat by first frying the both sides of the radish cake in medium fire until the surface is a bit caramelised. When frying, do not keep turning the cake slices or they will be broken and will not look good."

Chef Siu Hin-Chi, Ying Jee Club

This veteran Chinese chef counts Duddell’s, T’ang Court, Unicorn Restaurant and Heichinrou among his culinary history, and at Ying Jee Club he brings a high level of Cantonese cooking gleaned from decades of experience.

Size isn’t everything

When selecting your turnips, Siu recommends reaching for medium-sized turnips rather than the largest ones you can find—“they tend to have ‘hollow’ flesh inside and tend to taste more bitter,” he says. He also personally prefers Japanese turnips over local or mainland turnips for their sweeter taste.

The perfect mix

“For our recipe at Ying Jee Club, I use a ratio of 4:1 turnip to rice flour,” Siu says. “Besides rice flour, we also use water chestnut flour to make the cake less sticky, for a better texture.”

The process of mixing the ingredients and flour mixture is paramount, he advises. “It needs extra attention, and should be done in several batches to prevent lumps from forming, that could greatly affect the cake texture.”

How to eat

“I love pan-frying turnip cake and serving it with chilli sauce,” says Siu. “People often find it hard to pan-fry turnip cake because of its soft texture, which breaks easily during pan-frying. To prevent this, you can put the cake in the fridge before pan-frying. Also don’t be tempted to over-flip the cake—pan-fry one side until golden, then flip it to the other side.”

May Chow, Little Bao and Happy Paradise

Known for her inventive updates on the classics, Chow is one of the few Chinese chefs in Hong Kong who have taken the turnip cake to an entirely new level. The Little Bao ‘turnip’ cake, which Chow has been making for the past three years, is a vibrant mix of unconventional beetroot, Chinese rose wine sausage, dried shrimp, dried shiitake, dried scallop and seasonings such as white pepper and yuzu peel.

Understand your ingredients

“For our signature cake, we replaced turnip with beetroot, because we realised that it has a very similar texture and flavour profile to radish, especially when it’s mixed with the classic ingredients, says Chow. “Its natural sweetness is higher than radish, so we don’t have to use any white sugar to adjust the flavour.”

It’s important that the beetroot is fresh, meaning that it feels heavy to the touch and “when you cut through it, there should be juice. It’s the same expectation I would have for a turnip,” Chow says. For their cakes, Chow uses a ratio of 6:1 beetroot to rice flour.

Don’t go overboard and pay attention to detail

“It can be too easy to go overboard and be too generous with ingredients, so sometimes [traditional] turnip cakes can almost be a bit too salty,” she continues. “I avoid using chicken stock or chicken powder—my personal taste is that I feel like every ingredient should shine through.”

One thing that Chow is adamant about is creating a harmonious texture by paying attention to how you chop your ingredients. “At first, we cut the beetroot into batons, but then we realised that it was more challenging to cut through. I thought about French terrines and how you get these little cubes of vegetables. We decided to perfect the size of our diced beetroot to be 1.5mm by 1.5mm, so not only do you get the texture, but it’s easier to cut without everything falling out.”

How to eat

"For a lot of high quality cakes, there will be a softness to them—and so what I’ve taught people is how to carefully slice turnip cakes. I suggest people to use an offset spatula or a jagged edged bread knife to cut through the cake, and I like a thickness of 1-1.5cm," says Chow. 

"Use a low-medium heat and give it a good sear—l like to see it as how I would sear a piece of steak. I like to give it a little more time, two minutes on each side, so there’s this crunch on the outside but in the centre there’s a softness. By spending that extra time to pan-fry will make all the difference."

 

Chan Hon-Cheong, One Harbour Road

Grand Hyatt’s One Harbour Road is one of the OGs of Cantonese cuisine, and chef Chan—who first joined the restaurant in 2017—has been keeping the restaurant relevant and exciting with his fresh take on tradition.

Texture is everything

Chan first begins by peeling extra layers of of his turnip to ensure that any potential bitterness from the skin is completely removed. For his version of radish cake, he prefers cutting the turnip into thin strips rather than batons, and the Chinese sausages and dried shrimp that are mixed into the batter are cut even smaller to ensure a better texture—as in, not loose to the point where larger pieces of the sausage or shrimp fall out from the cake when sliced.

“Apart from using rice flour, we also add water chestnut flour to improve the texture of the turnip cake,” he says. “It becomes less gritty that way.” For his preferred ratio of grated turnip and rice flour, it’s 2 parts turnip to 1 part flour.

How to eat

A little extra touch is adding a bit more white pepper to the turnip cake mixture before steaming. “When we cook the cakes, we cut it into thicker slices and fry it over heat. This method will give a crispy on the outside, and soft on the inside texture.”

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