Turnip cake (蘿蔔糕/萝卜糕, lo bak go in Cantonese) is a dish that you often find at dim sum. There are many regional variations of turnip cake. The one that’s most popular in dim sum restaurants is lo bak go, which is southern Chinese-style turnip cake. My mom’s recipe is this southern Chinese-style turnip cake. There’s also Taiwanese-style turnip cake, tsai tao kui (菜頭粿). You can check out my friend Irvin Lin’s recipe for tsai tao kui here.
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 cured pork. Mama Lin has made lo bak go for years, and I’m glad I can make it myself now. 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?
The reason why lo bak go turned into “turnip cake” in English is convoluted and confusing.
Turnip cake is made of daikon (lo bak in Cantonese), a long white radish that’s commonly used in Asian cooking. Technically, this dish ought to be “radish cake.” However, lo bak go was translated as “turnip cake” by Chinese restaurants years ago, and that’s the name that has stuck. We will have to roll with it.
Another issue is how “糕” (go) is translated into English as “cake.” In Chinese, the word 糕 can refer to many different foods: 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 that’s the word you commonly see nowadays.
A NOTE ABOUT DAIKON
White radishes, like the ones you see above, are commonly used in Asian cuisine. This radish comes in many varieties. I commonly see them labeled as daikon in grocery stores and farmers markets. Daikon (大根) is the Japanese name for this radish and means “big root.”
Mama Lin prefers to cook with the radish on the left, which is thicker and more rounded. My mom calls it “Chinese radish.” According to my mother, the one on the right, which she calls “Japanese radish,” 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 FLAVORING BITS
Mama Lin likes using dried shrimp and dried scallops for her lo bak go. Soak them overnight to rehydrate. The scallops in particular need a few hours of soaking before they’re soft enough to be shredded. Mama Lin generally adds Chinese sausage (臘腸) and her homemade Chinese cured pork (臘肉) to flavor the lo bak go as well.
To bring out the flavor of these ingredients, my mom sautés them along with some shallots for a few minutes. She then seasons the flavoring bits with a bit of salt and oyster sauce.
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, use a peeler or knife to strip away any dry and fibrous layers. This is particularly 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 to get the flavors going. Then, she combines the daikon, with 1 1/2 cups of water and cook the radish for 5 to 7 minutes.
Daikon is slightly bitter, so she adds a few small pieces of yellow rock sugar to balance the flavors. (I also use rock sugar to neutralize the bitter flavor of the daikon in my vegan savory tang yuan recipe. You can find yellow rock sugar in Asian supermarkets or on Amazon. She prefers using rock sugar because she claims the sweetness is more pristine (清甜). You can substitute rock sugar with 1 tablespoon 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.
MIX DAIKON, FLAVORING BITS & BATTER
After you cook the daikon for a few minutes, mix in the flavoring bits. Make sure you reduce the heat to low. Then, carefully pour the batter into the wok. Stir everything together until the batter is no longer runny (see photo above). This shouldn’t take more than 1 or 2 minutes. If the batter is still very runny at this stage, the turnip cake won’t cook properly.
Pour all the contents of the turnip cake into a greased 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.
STEAMING THE CAKE
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. Bring the water to boil.
Carefully place the turnip cake above the rack. Cover and steam the cake for about 40 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 it 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, 萝卜糕, 蘿蔔糕)
- 5 to 6 (15g) dried scallops, (see note 1)
- 1/4 cup (20g) dried shrimp
- 3 tablespoons (30g) chopped shallots
- 1/2 cup (65g) chopped Chinese sausage
- 1/4 cup (40g) chopped Chinese cured pork
- 1 1/2 tablespoon vegetable oil (any neutral oil works)
- 1 tablespoons oyster sauce
- 1/4 teaspoon (1g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt, use 1/8 teaspoon if using table salt
- 2 1/2 pounds daikon (lo bak)
- 1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil
- 4 to 5 cloves garlic, smashed
- 1 1/2 cups (355ml) water
- 2 small pieces (15g) rock sugar, can sub with 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon (4g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt, use 1/2 teaspoon if using table salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon chicken bouillon powder, (optional, see note 2)
- 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 cup (115g) rice flour, measured with spoon-and-sweep method (see note 3)
- 1 scant cup (115g) cornstarch, measured with spoon-and-sweep method
- 1 cup (255ml) water
Prepare Flavoring Bits
- Soak the dried scallops and dried shrimp in water overnight. Drain the water. Shred the scallops with your hands. Roughly chop the dried shrimp.
- Heat 1 1/2 tablespoons of oil in a skillet (or sauté pan) over medium-high heat. Add the shallots and cook for about 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Next, add the dried shrimp, sausage, and cured pork and cook for a minute. Then, add the dried scallops and cook a minute more. Mix in 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt and oyster sauce. Turn off the heat and transfer everything to a bowl.
- Peel the daikon and slice off the top. 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 deep sauté pan) over medium-high heat. Add the garlic to the wok and sauté for about a minute, until fragrant. Transfer the grated daikon (and any daikon juices) into the wok. Add 1 1/2 cups of water, the rock sugar, salt, white pepper, chicken powder, and garlic powder to the wok. Make sure to place the rock sugar into the water to ensure that it dissolves properly. Cover the wok with a lid and cook the daikon on high heat for about 5 to 7 minutes.
- While the daikon is cooking, make the batter. Whisk the rice flour and cornstarch in a mixing bowl. Add 1 cup of water and stir. The batter might be stiff at the beginning, but keep stirring until the batter is smooth.
Mix Daikon, Flavoring Bits & Batter
- Uncover the wok and reduce the heat to low. Dig out the pieces of garlic from the daikon. You don’t want large chunks of garlic inside the cake. Add the flavoring bits and stir to combine. Then, add the batter to the daikon and stir until batter is no longer runny. The batter should thicken in a minute or two. Turn off the heat.
- Lightly grease the cake pan with oil. Transfer all the ingredients from the wok to the cake pan. Use a flexible spatula to smooth out the top of the turnip cake.
- Wash the wok. Place a steaming rack in the center of the wok and fill it with enough water so that the water level is just below the top of the steaming rack. Bring the water to boil.
- Carefully place the turnip cake on top of the steaming rack. Cover the wok and cook on medium-high for 40 minutes. Make sure to replenish the water after 25 minutes because it will evaporate.
- Turn off the heat and uncover the wok. Using oven mitts, transfer the cake to a cooling rack. You may notice some water on top of the steamed cake because of condensation that builds up under the wok lid. That’s okay. Let the cake cool for 10 minutes. If there's still a thin layer of water on top, carefully tip the cake pan to drain the water.
Serving Turnip Cake/Lo Bak Go
- Let the cake cool for 30 minutes to 1 hour before slicing and serving. If you want to pan fry the cake, let it cool completely, preferably overnight. The cake needs to set before pan frying. Otherwise, the cake will be soft and mushy.
- To pan fry, 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 3 to 4 minutes, until golden brown. Serve the turnip cake with Lao Gan Ma chili crisp or soy sauce.
- These scallops are about 1/2 to 3/4 inch in diameter (dried).
- 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.
- I usually use Thai rice flour that comes in the bag with the red label. This is NOT glutinous rice flour or mochiko. Sweet rice or glutinous rice flours won’t work with this recipe because they will make the cake chewy. I typically weigh my flours. See here for more info about the spoon-and-sweep method of measuring flour.
- You can use an 8×8-inch square pan or any pan that fits inside a wok. If you use a loaf pan, you’ll likely need to add another 5 to 10 minutes to the cooking time because of the depth of the pan.