Turnip cake (蘿蔔糕/萝卜糕) is a dish that you often find at dim sum. Although it is plain to look at, a good pan-fried turnip cake is a flavor explosion.
Pan frying the turnip cake gives it a crispy exterior, while the inside stays soft. When you bite into a piece, you’ll taste umami flavors from ingredients like dried scallops, dried shrimp, Chinese sausage or Chinese bacon. Mama Lin has made lo bak go for years, and I’m so excited to finally learn how to make it myself. I may be biased, but I think Mama Lin’s turnip cake is the best!
WHY IS LO BAK GO CALLED “TURNIP CAKE” IN ENGLISH?
Trying to figure out how lo bak go turned into “turnip cake” in English is convoluted and confusing. It is a lesson in how translations sometimes fail us.
Turnip cake is made of daikon (lo bak in Cantonese), which is a long vegetable that looks like a bloated white carrot. Daikon is actually a type of radish, so technically, this dish ought to be “radish cake.” However, someone started calling this “turnip cake” years ago, and that’s the name that has stuck. We will have to roll with it.
Another problem is how “糕” (go) is translated into English as “cake.” We often associate cakes with something like a birthday cake or a chocolate cake. But “糕” can refer to many different foods in Chinese cuisine: sweet or savory batter that’s steamed into a solid cake, like lo bak go; sweet batter that is steamed into moist and airy cakes; or sweet batter that’s baked into Western-style cakes. I’ve always found “cake” to be an imprecise translation, but it is commonly used in Chinese restaurants.
A NOTE ABOUT DAIKON
There are a lot of varieties of daikon, including the ones that you see in the photo above. Mama Lin prefers to cook with the one on the left, which is thicker and more rounded. According to my mother, the one of the right, which she calls “Japanese daikon,” is more bitter. I can’t say that I notice that big of a difference between the two. Any daikon should work for this recipe.
HOW TO MAKE TURNIP CAKE/LO BAK GO
PREPARE THE DAIKON
The first thing you want to do with the daikon is to trim the tops and peel the outer skin. As you peel the daikon, if you notice that the outer layers are dry and fibrous, use a peeler or knife to strip away the dry layers. This is an issue if the daikon you purchased is not fresh.
Then, grate the daikon. If you are using a box grater, use the largest grate. Be sure to grate the daikon over a large bowl or a 9×13 pan, as you want to preserve all the daikon juices that run out. If you want to save time with food prep, you can grate the daikon using a food processor.
BOIL THE GRATED DAIKON
Before mixing the daikon into the batter, Mama Lin usually boils the daikon. She’ll fire up the wok and sauté a few smashed cloves of garlic and diced shallots to get the flavors going. Then, she adds the daikon, along with 1 1/2 cups of water. Daikon is slightly bitter, so she adds a few small pieces of rock sugar to balance the flavors. You can find it in Asian supermarkets. She prefers using rock sugar because she claims the sweetness is more pristine (清甜). You can substitute rock sugar with 1 1/2 tablespoons of granulated sugar.
MAKE THE BATTER
For the batter, Mama Lin uses a mixture of equal parts rice flour and cornstarch. The rice flour gives the cake structure while the cornstarch makes the cake softer. If you don’t have cornstarch, you can substitute it with another starch, such as potato starch or tapioca starch.
STEAMING THE CAKE
Pour all the contents of the turnip cake into a pan. Although I use a 9×2” circular cake pan, you can use any pan, like an 8×8 square pan. Whichever pan you use, you want to make sure it can fit into a wok or steamer.
To set up the wok for steaming, place a steaming rack just over 2 inches high in the center of the wok. Fill the wok with enough water to reach just below the top of the steaming rack. Take the rack out, cover the wok and bring the water to boil. Then, place the steaming rack back into the center of the wok and carefully place the turnip cake above the rack. Steam the cake for 28 to 30 minutes.
I prefer using a large wok, like this 14-inch stainless steel one, for steaming.
SERVING THE TURNIP CAKE
You want to let the cake cool completely before serving. Mama Lin likes eating the cake at room temperature because she likes the soft texture of the cake. I prefer them pan fried. Usually, I chill the turnip cake in the fridge overnight. That way, the cake becomes stiffer, which makes it easier for slicing and pan frying.
LOOKING FOR MORE DIM SUM?
- Cantonese Shumai (Siu Mai)
- Mushroom Cheung Fun
- Pork and Cabbage Potstickers
- Chicken Potstickers
- Curried Potato Fried Dumplings
Turnip Cake (Lo Bak Go/蘿蔔糕)
- 2 1/2 pounds daikon
- 1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil
- 3 cloves garlic, smashed
- 3 tablespoons chopped shallots
- 1 1/2 cups water
- 2 small pieces rock sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon chicken bouillon powder (optional, see note 1)
- 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
- 4 ounces rice flour (see note 2)
- 4 ounces cornstarch
- 1 cup water
- Soak the dried scallops and dried shrimp in water overnight. Drain the water. Use your hands to shred the scallops. Roughly chop the dried shrimp.
- Heat 1 1/2 tablespoons of oil in a skillet (or sauté pan) over medium-high heat. Add the scallops, shrimp, Chinese sausage, and shallots and cook for about 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the oyster sauce, salt, and white pepper. Stir to combine. Turn off the heat and transfer everything to a bowl.
- Trim the tops off the daikon and peel them. Grate the daikon into a 9×13 pan or a bowl. You are doing this to ensure that you save all the daikon juices that release as you are grating the turnips. Alternatively, grate the daikon using a food processor.
- Heat 1 1/2 tablespoons oil in a large wok (or sauté pan) over medium-high heat. Add the shallots and garlic to the wok and sauté for about a minute, until fragrant. Transfer the grated daikon and daikon juices into the wok. Add 1 1/2 cups of water, the rock sugar, salt, chicken powder, white pepper, and garlic powder to the wok. Cover the wok with a lid and cook the daikon for about 5 minutes.
- While the daikon is cooking, make the batter. Mix the rice flour and cornstarch in a mixing bowl. Add 1 cup of water to the flour and stir. The batter might be stiff at the beginning, but keep stirring until the batter is smooth.
- Uncover the wok and turn off the heat. Dig out the pieces of garlic. You don’t want large chunks of garlic inside the cake. Add the stir fried shrimp, scallops, and Chinese sausage to the wok and stir to combine. Then, add the batter to the daikon and stir.
- Lightly grease the cake pan with oil. Transfer all the ingredients from the wok to the cake pan. Use a spatula to smooth out the top of the turnip cake.
- Wash the wok. Cover the wok with about 2 inches of water and bring it to boil. Place the steaming rack in the center of the wok. Make sure that the water level is just below the top of the steaming rack. Then, carefully place the turnip cake on top of the steaming rack. Cover the wok and cook for 28 to 30 minutes.
- Uncover the wok. Because of condensation, you may notice some water on top of the steamed cake. That’s okay. Let the cake cool for 10 minutes on the steaming rack before removing from the wok. Carefully drain the water over the sink. Let the turnip cake cool completely before serving.
- To pan fry the turnip cake, I usually chill my turnip cake overnight so that the cake stiffens. Slice the cake into small squares or rectangles. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the turnip cake pieces and pan fry each side for about 4 minutes, until golden brown. Serve the turnip cake with chili oil or chili oil crisp.
- My mom uses chicken powder often to enhance the umami flavor of her dishes. Feel free to leave it out. You can substitute the chicken powder with onion powder to give the dish more flavor.
- This kind of rice flour usually comes in the bag with the red label. This is NOT glutinous rice flour.
- You can use an 8×8-inch square pan or any pan that fits inside a wok.