I haven't been home in a year. As I touch down on the gleaming un-littered grounds of Singapore, I feel a sudden sense of worry--I don't know what about, that I might have forgotten to switch the stove off in my flat? That my luggage has, like before, been lost in transit? That Singapore has changed so much in the space of a year that I'm more like a stranger in my home, stubbornly insisting on but not actually belonging to this place, that I've been out of the loop so long that I can no longer join in conversations and self-assuredly complain about the latest fad/mall/government policy?
And then all these doubts and worries disappear. I'm greeted warmly by my mum, and by carrot cake from my favourite hawker stall.
I love so many foods from Singapore it would be cruel to make me pick one, and I can't even say for sure that fried carrot cake is my favourite, but I do know that I periodically develop strong cravings for it whilst in London. The way I deal with cravings doesn't involve joining a club of anonymous fellow addicts; it's a rather more cowardly approach of well, giving in to it. This is a dish I've done in London quite a few times, it does take a fair bit of work especially as everything is made from scratch, but it keeps my mind sane and my tummy happy. I made this again just a week before I flew, and ate it from the brown wax papers often used for takeaways (thanks Goz for your magic store of quirky Singapore kitchenalia), because I had dreams of it twice in a row as the date for my trip home drew closer.
I'm sure everyone has this one special dish that they must have when they return home. It might be a hotdog with a squirt of the most radioactively-coloured ketchup and mustard for a New Yorker, or a takeaway of the greasiest fish and chips for an Englishman, but for me, it's this messy slapped-together plate of radish cakes scrambled with eggs and salted preserved radish, the best ones fried in a generous amount of old-school healthy lard and smeared with a spicy sambal. Yes, in the world I grew up in, carrot cake does not come with cream cheese frosting. It's hardly a cake in the dessert sense of the word, and it's not even got carrots in it (it's because radish is referred to as bai luo bo or "white carrot" in Chinese), but this is carrot cake.
FRIED CARROT CAKE (Chai Tow Kway)
for the radish cakes (makes 2 portions)
200g radish (aka daikon or mooli), finely shredded
100g fine rice flour
150ml room temperature water
150ml boiling water
1/4 tsp sea salt
for fried cakes
one portion of radish cake from above
2 free-range eggs
3 tbsp of salted preserved radish (chai poh), soaked in warm water for 5 min and drained
4 cloves of garlic
drizzle (1-2 tbsp) of fish sauce
4 tbsp of lard (from happy pigs)
(kind of opt, but I'll judge you) dollop of sambal chilli paste
(opt) chopped spring onions, to garnish
I like to split this into a two-stage process, making the radish cakes the day before, and cutting up and frying the day after. I make more radish cakes, to easily satisfy future cravings.
1. Stir rice flour and room temperature water together. Add the boiling water to the shredded radish, and pour everything (boiling water and now-blanched-radish) into the rice flour mixture.
2. Add the pinch of salt, and set the bowl over a boiling pot of water, stirring the mixture until it starts to thicken up into a smooth sticky paste. Pour into a greased shallow dish, and steam over med-high heat for about 20 min, or until cooked and kind of firm. (It firms up more as it cools)
3. Cut into little cubes when it's fully cool, don't worry about ragged edges as these are the bits that get irresistibly crispy (think roast potatoes).
4. Melt half the lard in frying pan. When lard is hot, add the radish cakes and fry till crispy around the edges. I press on it with my spatula for maximum crispy edges. Remove and set aside.
5. Add the rest of the lard to the pan and fry the garlic and chai poh till fragrant, before returning the radish cakes to the pan with a drizzle of fish sauce. Spread everything around the pan.
6. Beat eggs with some fish sauce, and pour the mixture evenly over the radish cakes. Let set until the bottom is nicely browned, before flipping over and browning on the other side.To make it easier on yourself, just cut roughly into smaller portions with the sharp edge of your spatula before flipping, hawker-style. Hawkers here do servings of 20 at once (see above photo of my pan v.s. theirs), so an impressive single-move flip is not only idiotic but plain impossible. It's okay for everything to be semi-falling apart.
7. Smear sambal chilli paste over. You can also fry it directly with the sambal but that's how my favourite hawker does it. Finish with chopped spring onions.
The pieces of homemade radish cakes are soft, but not mushily so, and sandwiched among fluffy layers of fragrant fish-sauce-spiked egg, with just enough fried surfaces and crisp edges to keep things interesting. And of course, you get that periodic umami bite from the chai poh, and the periodic sweet-spicy kick from the sambal.
FYI, there exists, also, a black version of fried carrot cake- fried with sweet thick dark soy sauce instead and usually less eggy/ chunky/ crispy. It seems the black version is more popular in Malaysia, but I do have friends in Singapore who go for the black version, and whom I totally judge. There of course exists the Cantonese dim sum version of fried carrot (radish) cake which most are more familiar with- panfried slices sans egg but dotted with little nuggets of shiitake mushrooms, dried shrimps and chinese sausage to make up for it. I may be biased, I am biased, but my best carrot cake needs neither colour nor sausage, and definitely no icing.