grandpa’s steamed radish cake

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This post took me a while to write (in the interim I posted a gleefully technical breakdown of my process behind a revamped sticky toffee pudding – that pudding is so lovely by the way.)

My mother has always been worried about a resurgence of anti-Chinese racism. Reading negative news articles about China (which in western media, is most news about China) she would turn to me and sigh. “I wonder how this will affect Chinese Canadians here.”

To be honest, I never really took her concern that seriously. That racism, including anti-Chinese racism, is alive and thriving in Canada, I didn’t doubt. But I couldn’t understand why my mum was worried that anti-Chinese racism would increase – particularly compared to the virulent racism faced by black and Muslim and indigenous folk in Canada. Though comparisons are not relevant to this particular discussion (also, model minority myth much?)- as while racism impacts different groups in different ways, it still functions to oppress all racialized groups.

However, perhaps were I old enough to remember SARS, I would think differently. These past weeks have been eye-opening for me to see just how quickly and effortlessly the more vitriolic aspects of anti-Chinese racism slither back out.

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My family has a living memory of anti-Chinese racism. It starts with my great grandparents who paid a $500 head tax to enter the country and then watched as the already slit-sized doorway shut completely for 24 years with the passing of the exclusion act. My grandparents grew up being harassed, excluded from certain clubs and restaurants, and paid less than their white counterparts. Holding onto the self-worth in one’s Chinese ancestry was difficult when you lived a country that didn’t want you because of that, but the stories they tell me of their strong family bonds and the tight-knit Chinese-Canadian community made that possible. That I grew up hearing stories of my family members’ struggles and successes with such pride is a testament to their resiliency.

Things have changed since then, but their memories remains – and those memories are valuable reminders because things don’t change as fast as we want them too. The stereotypes are still there. The myths are still there. Xenophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment, and it’s meeker little cousin, the image of a Canadian as a white person, is still there.

These things are resilient. How can they not be when people are born into a society built on them? I remember one time when a friend made an offhand remark, a reference to Chinese people eating dogs. “That wasn’t meant to be racist,” he said quickly. “I know,” I replied with just as much panic. We sat in silence for a moment – both of us wondering what had just happened until he continued, admitting “No, it was racist. I don’t know why I said it, but I’m sorry.” Despite being one of the most introspective people I know (usually he would be the one catching my assumptions), being fed a lifetime of stereotypes through media, pop culture, and various other influences, had programmed in those stereotypes despite his best intentions.

Recently, it seems that the coronavirus has elicited some of those preformed associations and judgements in many countries – such as in Canada, the States, and Europe (as well as other countries in Asia). But it’s important to recognize those responses for what they are (i.e. primed by judgements and fears in order to relegate the coronavirus to the fault and concern of “others”) and what they are not (i.e. rational concerns justified by recent events).

As with SARS, the latest health epidemic is a reminder of the pervasive racism that deems Chinese populations to be inherently foreign, unhygienic and carriers of disease. – Kate Shao & Ken Linnes for Al Jazeera

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As a very much white-passing person, I’ve spent time coming to terms with the fact that my mum and I do not experience the world in the same way – or rather, the world does not treat us in the same way. There are interactions, where I am right by her side, but sometimes I will still not see or feel or even notice the microaggression the way she does.

And so instead, I need to listen. When we’re warned, or when fears are confided in us, listen and acknowledge them. It’s a bit of what we can all do, especially those of us that are white or on the whiter side.

What has been heartening amidst this is that there is a vocal Asian diaspora advocating for themselves – bringing back stories of SARS, contextualizing blowback in the history of anti-Chinese sentiment, and bringing attention to the normalized everyday racism some members of the community encounter.

At the same time there is still such a tragedy occurring. I can’t imagine the amount of fear and distress that must be happening in Wuhan and other affected areas under lockdown where the real issue resides.

Rather than thinking of the coronavirus as an us-versus-them situation, Mr. Huang suggests using a global lens. “Removing our Western exceptionalism and … humanizing [Chinese people] allows us to think about a more global concerted effort to try and contain this virus,” he said. – Dakshana Bascaramurty for The Globe and Mail

Further reading:

And lest it not be evident, while I’ve focused on anti-Chinese racism in this post, listening and advocacy are just as important if not more for other racialized groups, particularly those who shoulder the brunt of white supremacy oppression in Canada, such as black, indigenous and Muslim folk.

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Nothing gets posted on the blog without a recipe. I have so many drafts, it is simply not allowed to happen! I had debated what recipe to pair with this post – at first I was going to throw in a semifreddo, then a caramel tart. But none of those recipes felt at all related to the content.

Instead, I decided to pull out this steamed radish cake from the drafts – not because it’s a recipe of Chinese origins, but because it’s a recipe from my grandpa, a person that I’ve learned so much from: how to make tarte tatin, toppings for jook, and some, cushioned I’m sure, of what it was like to grow up as a person of colour in early/mid 20th century Canada.

This steamed radish cake, which we call something along the lines of lo bok go, is a grandpa classic. It’s a savoury cake, often found at dim sum, with a base of rice flour and grated daikon flavoured with dried shrimp, sausage, dried shiitake and green onions.

I brought some of my version to my grandparents; the first time there wasn’t enough dried shrimp. The second time around, the general consensus was that the cake was well-textured but, as my grandma lamented, “the radishes taste so much weaker now.” Things have changed in many ways.

When my grandpa makes this, he makes it very soft – dare I even say a bit mushy. It’s the perfect texture for how we usually end up eating it though – reaching in the fridge throughout the day and slicing off a slab of the cake for a cold snack. I’ve played with his water/rice flour ratio for a firmer cake in this recipe, which is best for pan-frying it. But just steamed and cold from the fridge is how I remember eating this cake the most.

steamed radish cake (lo bak go)

  • Servings: quite a bit!
  • Print

Adapted from my grandpa’s recipe with some modifications. My grandpa’s softer cake uses a ratio of 4:3 water to rice flour by volume, ideal for if you’re planning to just eat the cake cold out of the fridge! I reduced this to a ratio of 1:1 by volume for a firmer cake which holds up very well for panfrying.

  • 3 dried shiitake mushroom
  • 25g dried shrimp (my grandparents wish I added more though!)
  • 5g dried wood ear
  • 375g daikon/1 medium daikon (lo bak)
  • 6 green onions
  • 2 Chinese-style sausage (lap cheung)
  • small knob of ginger
  • 160g rice flour
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 350 mL water for a firmer cake (as photographed) OR 460g water for a softer cake
  • white pepper

The night before, place the shiitake, wood ear and dried shrimp into separate bowls. Boil some water, pour over the ingredients and let sit (ensure the mushrooms are completely submerged) until cool. Cover and place in the fridge to soak overnight.

The next day, grate the daikon on the holes on a box grater. Toss with a couple pinches of salt and place in a sieve to drain while you prepare the remaining ingredients. Then, squeeze the daikon to remove the excess water.

Finely chop the green onions and sausage. Mince the ginger. Drain the shrimp, wood ear and mushrooms, and finely chop.

Place the rice flour in a bowl, mix in the salt and a bit of white pepper. Whisk in the water until smooth, then add all the prepared ingredients. Pour into a large greased dish (I used a porcelain oval casserole – the exact size doesn’t matter as it will just affect how thick the cake is). Steam for around 40 minutes (depending on the thickness of the cake); while the surface might be a bit sticky, the cake itself will be fairly firm.

Let cool and chill. It can be served cold and sliced, or the slices can be pan fried with a bit of oil until golden on both sides and then served with soy sauce.

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