Chinese carrot cake – hold the frosting

As I alluded to last week about Chinese New Year (CNY) food, everything is highly symbolic.

Among the wide array of seasonal foods is carrot cake, or “lor bak go” in Cantonese. Translated literally, it means radish cake. How carrot became colloquial for radish is a mystery. 

Usually daikon radish is used in the Chinese version of carrot cake, which is savory studded with sweet Chinese sausage, a little bacon for smokiness, earthy shitake mushrooms and tiny salty umami packed shrimp. You could make it all vegetarian with more mushrooms and perhaps some water chestnuts for texture.

It is specifically a Cantonese dish in origin and found very commonly in dim sum/yum cha shops around the region.

Apparently, the cake is symbolic (yes, again) for prosperity and rising fortune. The story goes that due to its humble origins of being a simple radish, the dish should not be embarrassed and thus is dressed up with said protein-based ingredients elevating it from everyday simple food to a festive seasonal delicacy- hence the idea of progress.

Carrot cake has two very different meanings back home in Singapore. The first, one must be careful when talking about it, as cream cheese frosting doesn’t mix well with mushrooms and sausages (or maybe it does?).

A box grater is needed to grate the radish. You could also use a food processor with a grating attachment if you have one. It’s quite a watery vegetable so grate into a bowl to avoid mess. Daikon is also comically large, but thankfully Safeway sells them in smaller, partly hacked-off quantities.

The recipe below is something I got from my family, but again all with approximations as no one really measures anything it seems. Less rice flour will result in a lighter product, but will be more difficult to properly set as it steams from a sticky mass into a solid product.

Slice a generous portion, reheat by microwave and serve with Sriracha or some hot mustard (horseradish would work).

Alternatively, pan fry slices of the cake so that the outside is crispy with a slight gooey center.

And yes, you could grate some carrot into the mix for color if you really want to.

Chinese-Chinese New Year Carrot Cake

Start to finish: 2 hours, 45 minutes

Servings: 8-10

1 large chunk of daikon radish, about 1kg/2lbs

150 grams rice flour (make sure it’s not glutinous/short grain rice flour or you will hate yourself in the clean up)

50 grams corn starch

2 links Chinese sausage (lap cheong)

4-6 dried shitake mushrooms

2 shallots

2 thin slices of bacon (optional)

Small handful of dried shrimp

2 teaspoons sugar

2 tablespoons rice wine (optional)

2 tablespoons Soy sauce (optional)

Pinch of Chinese five-spice powder (optional)

  1. Rehydrate the mushrooms by covering them with boiling water and letting them sit while you get everything else underway. Then, pour into a bowl and cover with a plate.
  2. Grate your radish and carrot if using. Set aside.
  3. Dice your sausage, mushrooms (which should be soft by now, also save the liquid), and shallots into relatively small pieces. Dice bacon if using.
  4. Fry the bacon if using in a skillet and render out the fat. If you’re not using bacon, heat about 3 tablespoons of oil. Once hot, tip in the mushrooms, sausage and shallots and fry over medium high heat for about 5 minutes until the shallots are translucent. Add in rice wine, five-spice powder and soy sauce if using, and fry for another 5 minutes. Set aside.
  5. In a big pot, place the grated vegetables and liquid over medium heat and bring to a simmer cooking the vegetables until tender. Add in your fried ingredients.
  6. Add the two flours (it helps to mix them beforehand for a more homogenous product), and with a wooden spoon stir the mixture together so that you end up with a very thick paste-like consistency. If you’ve cooked off the daikon mixture too much and it’s too thick, add in some of the mushroom water. If that’s not enough, add some water. Taste and adjust for seasoning (salt, pepper, optional soy – keep in mind this can be served with another sauce at the end so you don’t necessarily want it too salty). You want something really viscous, thick and almost dough-like, but pourable and spreadable.
  7. Pour into a loaf pan, and place into a baking tray propped up with utensils (forks, chopsticks, etc.) and filled with hot water. Cover with aluminum foil and bake at 325 F, essentially a steamer for about 2 hours or until a fork/knife inserted into the middle comes out clean. Alternatively use a steamer if you have one.
  8. Once cooked, cool down and refrigerate to set (at least 6 hours) before slicing.
  9. Pan-fry in a small amount of oil if desired and serve.