Like maple trees in autumn, the Lunar New Year paints the streets of many East Asian communities red and gold. In Taiwan, vendors and families tack up “spring couplets,” short blessings written on strips of red paper in black or gold ink. Friends and families from far away gather, reuniting for elaborate feasts.
Traditionally, each dish carries a different meaning, a different way of wishing all of those gathered good fortune in the coming year. Children receive special blessings in the form of red envelopes containing money. The adults play mahjong and, in the spirit of the new year, bet small amounts of money, hoping to win as a sign of good luck to come.
Of all the familiar scenes of Lunar New Year growing up in Taiwan, one particularly shines as a treasured memory for me: turnip cake. (That’s how it is known in English, even though it is made of radish. We call it tshài-thâu-kué.) It’s a common dish, but special to me because of my a-má (Taiwanese for grandma).
As a kid, I always looked forward to visiting A-má’s house in Nantou with my mother. Nantou is a city that rests in a basin surrounded by mountains. Traditionally, on the second day of the Lunar New Year, daughters who are married return to their parents’ home.
On this special day, A-má would welcome us with all sorts of delicious dishes, including fó tiào qiáng, or “Buddha jumps over the wall,” a stew with extravagant ingredients like crispy fried spareribs, fish maw, and abalone; sweet and sour fish, representing a surplus in the new year; and hot pot, representing reunion. A-kong (Taiwanese for grandpa) would roast Taiwan bamboo partridges seasoned in garlic and soy sauce. After dinner, we would set off firecrackers with our neighbors.
I loved all the activities and dishes but one: turnip cake. I hated that it would stick to the roof of my mouth, and the strong taste of radish and shallot lingered in my mouth for far too long.
Turnip cake is an auspicious food for the new year because in Chinese, the word for cake (糕 gāo) is a homophone for “rise” or “tall.” In Taiwanese, the word for radish (菜頭 chhài-thâu) is a homophone for “good fortune.” But in Taiwan, its popularity extends beyond Lunar New Year. Families serve them year-round for breakfast and dessert.
A-má would always prepare a big two-level steamer at the front of her house to cook her giant turnip cake. The smell would cross the street as we got out of my dad’s car and lead us all the way to the front door. And before we headed back to Taipei, A-má would stuff all kinds of leftover reunion food and turnip cake in the trunk. Undoubtedly, these turnip cakes would be my breakfast, lunch, and dinner for at least a month, which disgusted me and left me in fear of the taste for the rest of the year.
The older we grow, the busier we get. We don’t visit A-má as often as we used to. As her health grew noticeably worse, she could no longer bear heavy kitchen work. Those turnip cakes have not accompanied us back to Taipei in years.
Now, thousands of miles from home at graduate school, all of a sudden I started to miss turnip cake. And this year, as the Lunar New Year approached, the aroma and taste that I was once unable to appreciate began to haunt me. I tried to find the flavors of home here in Washington, D.C., but the more I tried, the more disappointed I became. I started to appreciate the dish as not just a memory of home, but a representation of the bonds between family.
Last month, I called A-má for the recipe. Her version is made with the cooperation of her neighbors: a stone mill to grind extra-long-grain enriched rice, a giant grater for the radish, and so on. In universal grandma style, she explained the whole recipe as “a little bit of this and that and ready to serve”—not very helpful for a cooking beginner like me. So I tried a different approach to understand her turnip cake.
“A-má, why do you make turnip cake so often?” I asked, expecting a lesson in Taiwanese culture.
“Because your mom likes it, and I only see her once a year,” said my grandma. She paused, and that unspoken blank was the real answer, one that filled my heart with warmth, regret, and appreciation.
Taiwanese Turnip Cake
Note: This recipe is adapted from Rosalina’s kitchen with my mom’s taste and a touch of my grandma’s love.
1 2/3 cups (180 grams) rice flour
1 whole daikon radish (around 800 grams)
2 3/4 tablespoons (20 grams) tapioca starch or cornstarch
1 1/2 teaspoons (8 grams) salt
1/2 teaspoon (2.5 grams) white pepper
Chinese sausage, mushroom, dried shrimp, and fried shallot (optional)
- Peel and grate the radish. (This can be done with a box grater or in a food processor with the grater attachment.) Save the liquid that drains from it. In a bowl, mix some of the liquid with the rice flour until it looks milky.
- Heat four tablespoons of vegetable oil in a pan over medium heat. Add grated radish, salt, and white pepper to the pan and sauté for three minutes.
- Turn off the heat and stir in the rice flour mixture and tapioca or cornstarch. Mix well with patience.
- Bring the heat back up to a simmer. Add the pre-fried Chinese sausage, mushroom, dried shrimp, and fried shallot (optional). Stir all the ingredients constantly until the texture is muddy.
- Turn off the heat, and let the mixture stand for ten minutes uncovered.
- Grease a loaf pan, or several, and line the bottom with parchment paper. Fill the pan with the radish batter and level the top so it is smooth.
- Place a metal steam rack in the bottom of a pot, then cover the bottom of the pot with one inch of water. Place the loaf pan on top of the rack and cover the pot. Bring the water to a boil, then bring it down to simmer for 20 minutes. uncover and allow the pot to cool in order to let extra moisture evaporate.
- Chill in the refrigerator for four hours.
- Remove the radish cake from the pan and cut into half-inch-thick slices. Fry in a pan until golden brown.
Happy New Year! 新年快樂 Xīn Nián Kuài Lè! 恭喜發財 Kiong- Hí-Huat-Tsâi!
Yijo Shen is a multimedia intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a photojournalism graduate student at George Washington University. With her Taiwanese background, her work focuses mainly on the small island nation.