Friday, February 22, 2013

lo bak koh (radish cake)

The Lunar New Year or Chinese New Year, is the single most important festival of the Chinese social and cultural calendar. No expense is spared when marking the occasion, whether it's towards new home furnishings, spanking new outfits for the entire family, travel expenses to reunite with kin, or the most delectable and expensive culinary delicacies to share with both friends and family. So it's no surprise Chinese New Year is so high profile that everyone, Chinese or not, seems to know about it.

A lesser known, but no less delightful celebration, related to Chinese New Year is Chap Goh Meh or Yuan Xiao, in Mandarin. If you're not Chinese, or have little exposure to Chinese culture,  chances are you know little or nothing about it; while the early days of the new year are a celebration that includes inviting friends home to partake of traditional goodies and festive cheer, the last day of the new year has always been more of a family and community centred observance, with celebrations usually confined to family, relatives and community.

Chap Goh Meh is Hokkien for "the fifteenth night", which is the last day of the Lunar New Year festivities. I know of no other occasion, where the last day is celebrated with a bang, almost equal to the inaugural day.  Not even The Feast of the Epiphany, which officially brings Christmas to a close, is marked with so jolly an observance. The highlight of Chap Goh Meh in Singapore, is surely, the visually stunning and boisterous Chingay Procession, a very loud and blindingly colourful parade, not unilke a Mardi Gras parade.

Chap Goh Meh is sometimes referred to as The Lantern Festival since many homes are gaily lit with numerous lanterns, and often, families take to the streets, carrying lanterns, as a glittering send off to the last day of Chinese New Year, though this is not a common practice in modern day Singapore because of our highly urbanised lifestyle. It's also known as Chinese Valentine's Day, as it is considered a day of romantic potential for single ladies. The most charming and whimsical way to mark Chap Goh Meh, that I know of, happens in Penang, where single ladies, (young or otherwise), enthusiastically toss mandarin oranges into the river, hoping for it to be caught or picked up by a desirable potential beau, who would be besotted enough to seek the hand of the maiden who tossed the orange, in marriage.

And of course, a day of such significance must be marked by the partaking of delicious and symbolic foods, so families will gather to enjoy a meal together, of the usual Chinese New Year treats. Dessert will almost certainly be tang yuan, which represents completeness, continuity, infinity, unity and good fortune because of it's circular shape, and the promise of a year ahead, filled with sweetness and harmony for those who eat it.

If you're Cantonese, one of the must have dishes on the celebratory dinner table, will be Lo Bak Koh or radish cake. It's considered especially auspicious if eaten on the first day of the New Year as the Hokkien name for radish is chai tow which is a homophone for good fortune. But, if you want the last day of the New Year to be as fortune filled as the first, it makes good sense to make and more importantly, eat, this scrumptious treat, don't you think? A simpler version, with fewer and less expensive ingredients, is an expected offering in dim sum restaurants and also a common and favourite breakfast item in Singapore amongst the Chinese or lovers of Chinese food.

If this looks and sounds familiar, it's because lo bak koh is the Cantonese cousin of the Teochew chai tow kway. Both essentially mean radish cake. For chai tow kway, the radish rice cake is a simple mixture of grated radish, rice flour, water and seasonings. The cake is then cut into chunks which are pan fried with chopped garlic, chopped pickled radish, soy sauce, chili paste and eggs before being dished up and garnished with spring onions.

Lo Bak Koh is the more lux version, and especially for Chinese New Year, will be richly studded with diced shiitake mushrooms, cured meats like lap cheong or Jinhua ham and dried shrimps or prawns. Once steamed and solidified, it is sliced and served with garnishes and dipping sauces, or pan fried to a light crust before being served. Though both terms mean essentially the same thing, in Singapore, when you say lo bak koh, this is what you'll get while chai tow kway is usually taken to mean the more every day dish of cubed plain radish cake fried up with eggs and seasonings.

Carrots are usually not included, but I wanted a rich golden colour for my lo bak koh, symbolic of my wishes for a rich, golden cast upon this year, and upon all my undertakings. It's been eons since I had a golden year. I figure I'm finally up for one. I'm a little early for Chap Goh Meh, which falls on February 24 this year, but that's entirely intentional, as this dish is a two day project...... which gives you just enough time, if you start peeling that radish now! To my readers, one and all, a very

Happy Chap Goh Meh!!

lo bak koh

prep 4 hrs (plus cooling time)   cook 1 hr 20 mins      makes 24 slices (serves 8)

Radish Mixture

500 g or 1 medium radish (daikon or mooli) peeled and finely grated
100 g or 2 small carrots, peeled and finely grated
200 ml (1cup) water
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp white pepper
1 - 1 1/2 tbsp sugar (sugar neutralises the bitterness of daikon)

Meat Mixture

2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp fragrant sesame oil
6 shallots, peeled and chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 pair lap cheong (I used chicken lap cheong) soaked briefly then skinned and diced
4 dried shiitake mushrooms, rinsed, soaked until soft then squeezed dry and diced
30 g (1/2 cup) small dried prawns, rinsed, soaked until soft then squeezed dry and coarsely chopped
3 tbsp Shao Xing wine

Rice Flour Batter

225 g (2 1/4 cups) rice flour (not glutinous rice flour)
700 ml (3 1/2 cups) water

Combine ingredients for radish mixture and stir to dissolve salt and sugar. Cook over medium heat until vegetables are tender, pulpy and almost dry. Turn off heat and set aside.

Heat vegetable and sesame oil in another pan and fry the shallots and garlic until golden and fragrant. Add remaining ingredients, except for wine and stir over moderate heat until lightly browned. Pour in the wine and immediately cover with lid. Allow ingredients to steam in the wine vapours for 2 - 3 minutes. Open lid and stir until ingredients are dry. Turn off heat and set aside.

Prepare a large steamer and oil the bottom and sides of a 20 cm (8 in) square tin

Combine batter ingredients and whisk thoroughly. Pour batter into radish mixture in pan. Add meat mixture to radish and batter in pan. Stir until thoroughly combined then cook batter over moderate heat until mixture thickens enough to stand a spoon in.

Transfer mixture to oiled tin and lightly smooth top. Don't compress too much or cake will be heavy. Steam over high heat for 45 minutes to 1 hour or until solidified, but still wobbly in the centre. Remove from steamer and leave on counter until it reaches room temperature. Chilling cake overnight makes the cake easier to cut.

Run a blunt knife around edge of cake and gently invert onto a plate. Cut into slices and pan fry with a little oil over moderate heat until golden and crisp outside and soft inside.

Transfer slices to plate and garnish with spring onions before serving. The slices are tasty enough to eat asthey are, but some people like them with chilli garlic sauce, dried prawn sambal or sriracha.


  1. HAPPY CHAP GOH MEH to you, Denise !

  2. Hi Denise, coincidence I posted the radish cake today too. Happy Chap Goh Meh to you and your family!!! :)

    1. Hi Esther. Your radish cake looks really good. Next time I will try your version. Happy Chap Goh Meh to you and yours too!!

  3. Denise, what a substitute for sausage? I never seen chicken sausage here. Have you ever try 'lontong chap go meh' ? do delicious, a lot of work but always worth it. This dish so common around the Chinese new year celebration in my country, especially if you go around china town in Jakarta :D
    Have a wonderful weekend

    1. Hi Fitri - the chicken lap cheong is quite a new product. I only saw it at my usual supermarket slightly more than six months ago, I think. If you cannot find it there, maybe you can try Taiwan or Dragon sausage made from chicken, or chicken ham, or chicken luncheon meat. Do you have chicken or turkey Spam over there? Esther (see comment above yours) made her radish cake with luncheon meat and it looks very good.

      I have heard of lontong chap goh meh, but never tried it. My husband's family doesn'tt cook much Javanese style food, so I am more familiar with Padang cooking and some Bali cooking as my brother in law used to live in Bali. I googled it and it looks and sounds like Hari Raya (Eid) style of lontong lodeh, ie, nasi impit with sayur lodeh, sambal, rendang, sambal goreng etc. I think it must be really delicious because I LOVE lontong lodeh too. Btw, are you Indonesian Peranakan?

      Hope you have a great weekend and Chap Goh Meh with your family too :)

  4. Denise, your carrot cake is gorgeous! That surprising addition of carrot ;-) does make it look golden and shiny! And I loved the Chinese sausage in char kway teow, so it must be a really great addition to the plain carrot cake that I have tried. And now I finally leaned the trick of working with rice flour - yey! You are the best :-) Have a wonderful golden year!
    p.s. love that mandarin throwing tradition story, but I think I could not bring myself to throw a good mandarin into a river ;-)

    1. Hey Elana :) Thank you! Yes, who on earth would ever imagine there was carrot, in carrot cake? LOL This dolled up Chinese New Year version is dreamy and chockful of tasty nuggets, but, the simple radish only version is pretty darned delicious too. My boys and I are so crazy for chai tow kway, that when this batch was gone, I actually made 3 more batches, in the space of 2 days, as the cakes just kept disappearing!! We all love it fried up with garlic, pickled radish, eggs and EXTRA chili paste.

      Now that you know, the 'secret' to carrot cake, I hope you try it again and have it come out perfect. Perhaps, loving it as much as you do, it could become your signature dish?

      I totally agree about the mandarins - painful waste of a good thing ;) May your year be golden too!

  5. Hi Denise! Your radish cake looks absolutely awesome! The ingredients are well mixed and steamed. You cut and pan fried the slices so perfectly! I can smell the lup cheong and dried shrimps...

    Let's have this together over cups of good chinese tea! :D Mmmm, perfect afternoon tea!

    1. Hi Alvin :) You're too kind. Aiyoh! You make me want to run out and yum cha for hours!! Long, long time since my last session. Great way to destress, while getting fat ;)

  6. Thanks for the idea Denise.
    I love chai tow kuay and this radish alternative doesn't look too complicated so I'll give it a go tomorrow. Luckily I can get the ingredients here. Btw I had no idea one could or should remove the skin off a lap cheong. Like a dingaling I've been eating it for years. Happy Chap Goh Meh to you Denise!

    1. Hi Jean! I don't know anyone who's tasted chai tow kway and NOT fallen head over heels in love :) It's the one thing I crave madly when I've been away from home for too long, apart from yew char kway. This isn't really difficult, it just has a few more steps than the average recipe, but the results are more than worth any extra effort. I hope you'll be happy with the results, but beware - you'll not want to stop eating it, till it's ALL gone!!

      Happy Chap Goh Meh to you too!!.

  7. This is definitely the deluxe version. Looks absolutely delicious! I guess Chingay is big in Singapore. I may have only seen it once or twice when I was very little. I alwasy feel alittle homesick at this time of the year thinking of all the festivities going on back in KL.

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    Chinese New Year Cakes Singapore


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