There is a dish that has continually been the favourite of Minnan people for the past millenium, whether or not they have been absorbed into other cultures, and that is ’tsaitaogwey’ 菜頭粿/菜头粿.
Tsaitaogwey is basically a steamed daikon cake. The name ’tsaitaogwey’ is its Hokkien name, meaning ‘daikon 菜頭’ ‘cake 粿’. In Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese, it is called lobakgou and luobogao 萝卜糕, with the same meaning.
In Singapore, due to the bad level of English there, it has earned the horrific misnomer ’carrot cake’ – a direct literal translation from its Cantonese name, as carrots and daikons have the same name in Cantonese. ’Tsaitaogwey’ is also often transliterated as ’chai tow kway’.
Tsaitaogwey is an ancient Minnan dish
Many people claim that tsaitaogwey is a Teochew dish, because of the proliferation of the dish there. Teochew people are a branch of Minnan 闽南 people who have moved to the Canton (‘Guangdong’ 广东) region from their homeland in southern Fujian. The migration probably took place around 580-700AD. The old Hokkien saying ‘潮州福建祖’ – the ancestors of the Teochew are in Fujian – attests to this migration.
However, the fact that this dish is present throughout the whole Hokkien speaking area – in Fujian itself as well as in Taiwan, shows that this is a very ancient Minnan dish that predates that migration. Why is it also eaten in Canton then? Ancient Cantonese did not eat tsaitaogwey. Historians found that the northern population of Canton was in fact naturalised Hokkien migrants. Chaozhou, or ’Teochew’ is a remote pocket of population where the Minnan language survived. By introducing tsaitaoguey into the Cantonese cuisine, it took on Cantonese ingredients, such as Cantonese sausage and bacon. So today, ’lobakgou’ 萝卜糕 as it is known in Cantonese, is tsaitaogwey with bits of bacon and mushrooms – which is never done in its original form.
Making tsaitaogwey was a yearly affair
Contrary to today whether you are in Singapore, Taipei or Chaozhou, tsaitaogwey was not a street food.
Ancient Hokkien people only ate it in winter and made it as a “new year’s cake” 年糕 to celebrate new year’s day.
This is because the Hokkien word for daikon ’tsaitao’ 菜頭 is a homonym for ’auspicious signs’ 彩頭. Eating tsaitaogwey brings one luck and prosperity in the coming year.
Hence a Hokkien saying that still lingers in Fujian and Taiwan that bears witness to its ancient role as a ‘new year cake’: ‘菜頭粿，好彩頭’ – ’tsaitaogwey, good auspicious signs’.
Daikons are winter food
Another reason to believe tsaitaoguey was a new year’s dish is the chief ingredient: the daikon
It doesn’t have a proper English name because only East Asians are familiar with this native root. Throughout China, Korea and Japan, daikon is eaten in winter and considered an important source of vitamins in the cold winter months.
Several proverbs about daikon highlight East Asians’ esteem of this humble root:
- 小人参: Little ginseng
- 萝卜进城，医生关门: The daikon enters the city, the doctor closes his door
- 吃着萝卜喝着茶，气得大夫满街爬: Eat the daikon and drink tea, drive the doctor mad into the streets
The most useful proverb that you should know and that I live by is: 冬吃萝卜夏吃姜, meaning ’Eat your daikon in winter and your ginger in summer’
This folk wisdom is proven by the most famous Chinese physician of all times Li Shizhen 李时珍 (1518 – 1593). In his ‘Compendium of Materia Medica’ 本草纲目, he wrote about the synergy between daikon and ginger:
’The gardener plants the “laifu” 莱菔 (ancient name for daikon): he sows in summer, they sprout in autumn, and he harvests the roots in winter’
’Consume more daikon to move the chi. Only raw ginger can purge the toxins.’
What Li Shizhen meant was: consume the daikon throughout winter to prevent the toxins from taking root in your body, when summer comes, consume ginger to purge them all out.
In this sense, tsaitaogwey is truly a dish that brings forth rebirth! It is not only a celebratory dish that welcomes the new year, it signifies renewal for your digestive system!
Now that you know about the Minnan origin of tsaitaogwey, its beginnings as a new year’s dish and its health benefits, onwards to the recipe!!
- 1 big daikon (at least 30cm long)
- 500g tapioca flour
- 1000ml water (or 500ml water and 500ml unsalted chicken stock)
- 1 tsp chicken stock in powder form
- 1 tsp salt
- Dash of white pepper
Serving: 4 persons
- Peel your daikon with a peeler to get rid of the slightly hard outer layer.
- Chop it roughly into cubes to facilitate grinding. I split it into 3 batches because I have a small food processor. With 500ml water (or chicken stock), add a bit at a time to make the grinding smoother. The idea is to have a smooth pulp.
- Pour your daikon pulp into a pot and cook over low heat for about 15 minutes, so soften the daikon. Add chicken powder, salt and pepper. Keep stirring to prevent it from burning.
- Meanwhile, place your tapioca flour in a large basin. Slowly stir in 500ml water and whisk it into a thick and smooth paste.
- Once the daikon pulp is cooked, slowly whisk it into the flour paste and mix the two very well.
- Bring to boil some water in a wok with a steam rack. Pour half of your daikon flour mixture in a round metal mould (3cmH x 20cm diametre) and place it on the steam rack. Cover and steam for about 30-40 minutes on high temperature.
- Once done, take out the whole metal mould and let it cool to room temperature. Do NOT attempt to take our your cooked tsaitaogwey.
- Pour the other half of the daikon flour mixture into another metal mould and apply the same steaming process.
- Once both plates of tsaitaogwey are cooled to room temperature, put them in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours to dry out the excess moisture.
- Once done, take out your tsaitaogwey from the mould. It should be springy and firm to touch.
With your newly prepared tsaitaogwey, you can make a whole lot of different dishes out of them!
Tip: Wrap your unused tsaitaogwey in plastic wrap to make sure they do not dry up and place them in the fridge. Use them up within 3 days.
I advise against storing them in the freezer and the texture will change.
Basic recipe: Pan-fried tsaitaogwey 煎菜頭粿
- tsaitaogwey 菜頭粿 (cut in blocks of 3cm thick)
- 2 tbs vegetable oil
- Garnish: sweet soy sauce
- Heat up a pan with oil
- Pan fry your tsaitaogwey on all sides until it is entirely crispy
- Serve on a plate with a drizzle of sweet soy sauce
You may also want to try out my other tsaitaogwey recipes: Stir-fried tsaitaogwey 蛋炒菜頭粿