Now that Christmas and the New Year celebrations are over, it is time for Chinese Lunar Year also known as Spring Festival. It begins on January 22 this year, the day of the new moon and goes on for 15 days. 2023 is the year of water Rabbit, a symbol of longevity, peace and prosperity! It is supposed to be a year of hope and peace. I will drink a cup of tea to that since we sure could all use more of that.
Happy new year in Chinese is ‘xīn nián kuài lè‘. “kuài lè” means happy, and “xīn nián” is new year! We learn something new everyday!
Which countries celebrate the lunar year?
There are quite a few actually, namely China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, Tibet, Mongolia, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines. That’s almost 2 billion people! But you don’t need to be Asian or live in Asia to celebrate the lunar new year.
Even though we celebrate the new year on January 1st, for us women, the new year really starts around the first new moon. It isn’t surprising since our bodies and minds are greatly affected by the moon. That’s when nature truly begins a new cycle and so goes our lives. Pay close attention to signs in your life and energies shifting and you will too experience it. That’s probably why most of our new year’s resolution never last long. Wait a few more weeks and you will get the help of the new moon and its ability to lift our emotions and makes us calm and motivated. That should be the time to set new goals.
Food for the Lunar Year Celebration
There are a set dishes that are traditionally served for Chinese Lunar Year celebrations. In addition to being delicious, each of these dishes has a symbolic meaning, for example: golden eggrolls bring prosperity, dumplings are a symbol of wealth, longevity noodles (long fat wheat noodles), etc. Another one is Chinese turnip cakes (Lo Bak Go). These savory dim sum cakes are first steamed then pan fried.
Turnips don’t sound very exciting or appetizing but when prepared correctly they are really good! Chinese turnips in fact are different from European turnips. They are what we call daikon, a long thick white radish with a green top. For this recipe, you want to buy a large daikon (approximately 20-30 oz). It looks quite impressive but don’t worry you can also use it to make carrot and daikon pickles.
Other popular vegetables are: bamboo shoots (symbol of longevity), mushrooms (for good fortune) and seaweed (for wealth).
Things to avoid during the Lunar year celebration:
Apparently there is no arguing, swearing, breaking things, using sharp objects (could cut the stream of wealth and success), no taking medicine, etc. Can you imagine the discipline and strict conduct for the whole family to abide to these rules for 2 weeks?
Etiquette around the table
If you are invited to a Lunar Year celebration, you might want to be aware of a few do’s and don’ts, like:
– Wait for the host to take the first bite before starting to eat. After all they have done all the hard work!
– Never use your chopsticks to serve someone (definitely not COVID friendly!)
– No slurping or making noise (only cool in Japan!)
– If you don’t know what to do with your chopsticks, don’t jam them in a bowl of rice! That’s a definite no no!
Back to our turnip cakes. This isn’t a quick dish. It involves a certain amount of fine dicing (enroll a few family members to help with the task), some steaming (about 40 minutes), delicate slicing with a serrated knife and a quick pan frying at the end.
In terms of ingredients, dried or fresh shiitake mushrooms can be found in most grocery stores these days, so this shouldn’t be an issue.
Rice flour used to be only found in Asian grocery stores. You can now order it online and Bob Red’s Mill carries it too. It is cheap and can be used to make Vietnamese omelets and much more. So don’t worry you will use it up.
I added some vegan ham (yum!) You can find it in the freezer section of most Asian grocery stores. You could add some chopped walnuts, or red pepper.
CAUTION: You do not want to add too many ingredients for the filling because you want the cakes to hold together. I would do 4 ingredients max and that includes the green onions. For the base, mushroom, onions, carrots and either some veggie ham or some red peppers. Not both! And everything has to be super finely diced otherwise the cakes may come apart when you slice them. Just be gently when you cut them and it will be fine. Plus if a small piece separates, you can paste it back because the rice flour acts like glue!
I usually make and steam the cakes the day before and pan fry them the next day. This way most of the heavy lifting and messing up the kitchen is done before you plan to serve your meal! Refrigerating the cakes overnight helps firming them before making slices. Make extra and freeze them for later, you will thank me for it.
Let’s get cooking!
Chinese Turnip Cakes for Lunar Year Celebrations
- mini baking dishes
- bamboo steamer or metal steamer basket
- 1 large daikon radish peeled and shredded
- 10 dried or fresh shiitake mushrooms
- 1 large carrot finely cubed
- 4 stalks of green onions finely chopped
- 2 tbsp soy sauce or hoisin sauce
- 1 tsp balsamic vinegar
- 2 cloves minced garlic
- 1 cup rice flour
- 5 tbsp cornstarch
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1 tsp white pepper
- 2 tbsp soy sauce
- 1 tbsp rice vinegar
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp chili paste or siracha
- 1 green onion finely chopped
- 1 tbsp white sesame seeds
- If using dried shiitake mushrooms (on the right side), soak them in 1 cup of hot water for 10 minutes.
- Finely dice the carrots and the green onion.
- Boil enough water to blanch the carrots for 3-5 minutes. Drain and set aside.
- Peel and shred the daikon using the largest holes on the box grater. Set it aside for 5-10 minutes.
- When the mushrooms are rehydrated, save the liquid.
- Remove all the tough stems and chop in tiny pieces.
Cook the filling
- In a frying pan, add a little oil and cook the green onion, and minced garlic for a minute.
- Stir in the blanched carrots, finely chopped shiitake mushrooms.
- Add the soy sauce, sugar, and white pepper. Stir and cook for a few minutes minutes until the carrots and mushrooms are cooked. Set aside.
Prepare the dry batter
- Whisk the rice flour, cornstarch, salt, sugar and white pepper in a large bowl.
Prepare the Chinese turnip/daikon
- Squeeze excess liquid by pressing with your hand over the sink.
- Pour the shredded daikon, salt, and the mushroom infused liquid in a frying pan. Cook until translucent. This should take between 5-10 minutes.
- Pour the cooked daikon mixture in a large bowl. Mix in the dry batter ingredients making sure that the flour is well incorporated and no lumps remain.
- Time to add the mushroom/carrot/green onion mixture and mix again.
- Oil 2 small baking dishes.
- Pour enough water to cover the bottom of a large frying pan and bring to a boil.
- Pour the cake mix in the oiled pans. Push down to make sure that the mixture is filling the pan and smooth the top.
- Insert the cakes in the steamer and set a timer for 45 minutes.
- If you are using 2 baskets, the bottom one will need to cook a little longer than the top one.
- Remove from the steamer and let cool for an hour or overnight.
- Whisk all the ingredients except the green onions.
Crisp the cakes
- Gently remove from the baking dish by inverting it. Cut 1/2 inch slices using a serrated knife.
- Pan fry in a little oil to crisp the edges.
- Serve immediately with the dipping sauce and sprinkle chopped green onions.