Lobakgo (turnip cake), and in which I rant about Chinatown

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We got this sweet specimen of a daikon radish in the CSA last Tuesday. All the white people were like “whaaaaaa???”, and I just zoned in and got really serious and quiet, like  “Uhmuhgod this is fresh so fresh, I need to find a recipe worthy of this radish… ok grandma used to make this so lets try to make lobakgao from scratch, and maybe save a piece to shave into ponzu sauce for shabushabu”.

So here we go. Don’t be afraid guys. Unexpected veggies like this is the best part about being a part of a CSA in NYC. Contrary to popular belief, many local farms in the area are Asian immigrant-owned family operations, growing specialty vegetables for the Asian markets. So before y’all bring up Chinatown markets being dirty and gross, keep in mind that this produce can be more local than the avocados, baby spinaches, and other stuff at your supermarket or Whole Foods, or Trader Joes. Produce in Chinatown is expected to sell by that day so at most it’ll be sitting out on ice for a while. Chinatown is like Trader Joes – everything is sold by the end of the day or bust.

Of course you’ve got the veggies and fruits that are flown in from Cali, Korea, and Southeast Asia, but as in most grocery stores, you’ve got to know what’s in season to estimate what’s been grown locally. For example, gailan greens are best in winter. Your asian pears are gonna be flown in, because these are the kind of fruits that you gift to family and friends and they’ll know if you cheapskated them if you get the inexpensive type.

This is stuff you’d learn from grocery shopping with your grandmother or your mom/dad. If you don’t have an Asian elderly person in your pocket, let me learn you something: know your favorite veggies and their peak seasons. Don’t let the street vendors fool you into paying a higher price when there is no need to. Chinatown market prices are unmistakably affected by the daily market rates since all of these veggies are purchased wholesale. You’d never catch me paying $.50 per orange when I can probably safely predict that next week they’ll be four for a dollar depending on where they’re sourced. Eff that.

So why do vegetables sell so fast? Immigrant families in Chinatown have a history of cooking fresh meals every day, so they buy in volume. Therefore Asian markets buy their vegetables in volume, often also at discount because their product is closer to ripeness/spoilage. The best way to get quality veggies is to create a good relationship with a local market vendor who’s going to make sure you get the right stuff because they want to avoid the hassle with you. My parents (mostly my mom) have been known to spend more than a few minutes arguing about the quality of a vegetable to drive down the price, only to laugh about it with the seller a half minute later.

I don’t have that relationship since I don’t shop at Chinatown enough these days, but I do have my strategic places to go for certain things. For true vegetable staples, I go to markets with a very high turn-over rate, such as New York Mart or Hong Kong Supermarket. For cheap veggies in season or just for fun, I’ll go to the market under the Manhattan Bridge for bundles of stuff for a $1. The latter tends to be a shit show with long lines but I find it fun sometimes.

Anyway, this has been a huge sidetrack from the typical food and recipe entry but it is all to insist that it’s a skill and a privilege to buy vegetables in Chinatown. There are no true “quick tips”. Just try to learn your shit. Here is a helpful NPR bit about the value in buying from Chinatown. If you have tips, share them please!

And here for the lo bak gao (turnip cake) recipe, based on this one from cookingwithalison.com

Ingredients

  • 1 big ass daikon
  • 4 Chinese sausages (lap cheong), diced or blasted in the food processor
  • 2 tbsp dried baby shrimp
  • 1 cup rehydrated shitake mushrooms
  • 2 green onions, sliced finely
  • 2 cups rice flour
  • 1/2 tsp 5 spice powder
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 3 cups chicken broth
  • White pepper to taste
  • Vegetable oil

Procedure

  1. Shred the daikon with an attachment in your food processor (we used to do this by hand as kids… ouch). Squeeze out the extra water with your hands.
  2. Place the shredded daikon and chicken broth into a saucepan and bring it to a boil. Keep it simmering, covered, for at least 20 minutes or until al-dente. Remove from heat, strain while reserving the cooking liquid, and let both cool.
  3. Meanwhile, heat the oil and fry up your lap cheong bits with the shrimp and shitake mushrooms, rendering the oil out of the sausage. It shouldn’t take long at all, and when your’e done just set it aside on a plate to cool.
  4. In a large mixing bowl, mix all the other dry ingredients: rice flour, 5 spice powder, sugar, white pepper together and add the reserved cooking liquid. Then add the cooked radish, and the sausage mixture. Mix thoroughly and pour it into a greased cake pan or giant ramekin.
  5. Steam for 40 minutes to an hour until the cake is firm to the touch and a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean. Let it cool completely, and let it set in the fridge for a couple of hours at least.
  6. When the cake is all firmed up, upturn the cake pan or ramekin and slice up into flat pieces. Fry these slices up in a pan with some oil and serve with oyster sauce on the side.

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