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)
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)
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.