Recipe: Turnip Cake (Law Bok Gow)

From a Chinese-American kid's perspective, Chinese New Year is a holiday as cool as, or even better than, Christmas. You get lots of red envelopes full of money, big boxes and tins of candy, and big meals for at least 3 to 5 days straight. You don't have to pretend to like any of the re-gifts or fruitcake you receive. And if your mother has free time, which she somehow always finds during the New Year, she'll whip up batches of snacks for you to eat and to give to relatives.

One of these snacks, eaten all year round but especially during the New Year, is turnip cake. It symbolizes prosperity and growing fortunes, but a kid's main concern is how good something tastes. (Even many years later, turnip cake is one of the first foods I associate with Chinese New Year.) Although this is a staple on dim sum menus, no restaurant turnip cake compares to the homemade version, which bares the aroma of just-cooked mushrooms and pork even days after it's made.

To make this recipe you'll need a firm white Chinese turnip about 10 to 12 inches long and 4 to 5 inches wide. Instead of grating the turnip like many recipes say, my mother slices it into thin strips to be cooked. This gives the cake a firmer texture that holds together better during pan-frying. And the Chinese never eat the whole cake at once; usually we eat a few pieces after the cake has just been steamed, then tightly wrap the rest in plastic and refrigerate. We then pan-fry the rest for breakfast or when friends and relatives come to visit.

Speaking of the New Year, I will be spending the next few days in Guangzhou, my birthplace. My family and I will have New Year's Eve dinnner (Tuun neen) with my uncle's family, and then dinner on New Year's day with my dad's best friend's family. The last time I spent New Year's in Guangzhou was 1988, so it will be interesting to see all the festivities, firecrackers, and the famous Flower Street. To everyone celebrating the Lunar New Year, 新年快乐!

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Other Cantonese recipes to try:

Sweet and Sour Pork

Vegetarian Congee

Wonton Noodle Soup, Hong Kong-Style

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Turnip Cakes (Law Bok Gow)

3 1/4 cups rice flour 8 dried shiitake mushrooms 2 ounces dried shrimp 6 ounces Chinese bacon (lop yok) or Chinese sausage 1 large Chinese white turnip, about 2 pounds 3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil 2 teaspoons Shaoxing rice cooking wine 2 teaspoons dark soy sauce 1 teaspoon salt

Special equipment: Mandolin, 10-inch cake pan, large wok (with lid) that is bigger than the cake pan

1. In a large heatproof bowl, combine the rice flour and 2 cups of water. Mix well until the mixture is smooth and velvety, and set aside.

2. In a small bowl, soak the shiitake mushrooms in about 1/2 cup of cold water for 10 to 15 minutes to soften. In a separate small bowl, do the same with the dried shrimp.

3. Meanwhile, bring water to boil in a small pot. Place the Chinese bacon in the pot and cook for 3 to 4 minutes to soften. Remove from heat and pat to dry. Finely chop and set aside.

4. Once the shiitakes are done soaking, remove from water, sqeeze out excess water, finely chop, and set aside. Remove shrimp from water, finely chop, and set aside.

5. Peel the turnip, and with a mandoline, slice into 2 cm thick slices. Then cut slices into strips about 2 cm thick. Set aside.

6. Heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a wok. Add shrimp and mushrooms and cook until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add the cooking wine and soy sauce and stir until the shrimp and mushrooms are well-coated. Add the Chinese bacon, cook for another 1 to 2 minutes, then remove from heat and set aside.

7. In the same wok, toss in the turnip strips and stir-fry for 2 to 3 minutes, adding a bit more cooking oil if necessary. Then pour in 1 cup water, cover the wok, and let the turnip steam for 10 to 15 minutes until just cooked.

8. Pour the hot turnip mixture into the bowl with the rice flour mixture and mix thoroughly, until the turnips are well-incorporated into the mixture. Add the bacon, shrimp, mushrooms, and salt. Stir until evenly distributed. Pour the resulting mixture into a round 10-inch cake pan and smooth out the top.

9. Steaming: Bring water to boil in a large wok big enough to fit the cake pan. Carefully fit the cake pan into the steamer, cover, reduce the heat to a simmer. Steam for 1 hour, or just until the turnip cake is set and is firm to the touch. Check the water level regularly and replenish, if necessary, with boiling water. Carefully remove the pan from the steamer and allow to cool on a rack for about 1 hour.

10. When cooled, run a knife along the edge of the cake to loosen sides. Invert to unmold and flip the cake right-side up onto a cutting board. Slice the cake into rectagles 1-inch thick. You can serve the turnip cake as-is and sliced, or wrap the cake in plastic and refrigerate until ready to stir-fry.

11. Optional stir-frying: Heat a medium to large skillet over medium heat. Add enough oil to barely cover the bottom and fry the cake in batches, about 3 to 5 minutes per side until golden brown. Serve immediately plain or with oyster sauce, soy sauce, or chilli sauce.

Candied Walnuts Without an Oven

Back in the good ol' US of A, I used to make candied nuts for snacks or holiday treats using the standard American oven. You know, the kind that comes in every house from coast to coast, from California McMansions to tiny tenement apartments in the Lower East Side. (The one in my LES tenement was always on the fritz, but that's a tangent for another time.)

In China, home ovens are almost impossible to find outside of the newest and priciest pads. So while Western recipes for candied walnuts and pecans tend to say bake in the oven, Chinese recipes call for deep-frying. I had never fried walnuts before but decided to try today. My wok is still pretty new, and even though it has already been seasoned, deep-frying is good for getting more oil into the metal.

I had originally planned to save these walnuts for an after-dinner snack, when I settle into the couch and tune in to China's version of HGTV. So putting them within easy reach of Jacob and me was a bad idea. The walnuts are almost all gone and we haven't even begun to make dinner.

Candied Walnuts without an Oven
Adapted from Mrs. Chiang's Szechuan Cookbook and 101 Cookbooks

2 cups shelled walnuts
1 1/2 cups (300 g) granulated white sugar
3 to 4 cups peanut or canola oil for deep frying

Special equipment: 1. Deep fryer, wok, or heavy stockpot. 2. Slotted spoon or metal strainer

In a heatproof bowl, pour enough boiling water over the walnuts to cover. Let soak for 3 minutes. Drain, then return the walnuts to the same bowl and mix in sugar. The heat from the walnuts and the bowl will melt the sugar. Mix until the walnuts are fully coated.

Pour enough oil into your fryer/work/pot to a depth of at least 3 inches (8 cm). Heat the oil over medium heat until hot enough, when the wok begins to emit a bit of smoke. Reduce the heat to low and put in a spoonful of walnuts, allowing the foam to subside before adding more. (Otherwise the foam could spill over and cause burns.) Fry the walnuts until medium-brown, about a minute for big pieces and 30 seconds for small pieces. Careful not to burn the walnuts. Scoop them out with a slotted spoon or metal strainer, and transfer to a baking sheet to cool. Repeat with the remaining walnuts, working in small batches every time.

Allow the walnuts to cool before serving. These can also be stored in an air-tight container for up to 2 weeks.