It would have made more sense for me to make a carrot cake. Everyone loves a carrot cake, especially topped with a thick layer of cream cheese frosting. The last time I made a carrot cake it was consumed before it had time to set and cool properly.
Last Sunday I made a turnip cake. Unlike my immediately popular carrot cake, the turnip cake was a tough sell. It’s been four days since I made the cake and more than half of it is still sitting in my fridge.
The turnip cake, a traditional dim sum dish, is not sweet but savory. A white turnip is chopped up and combined with rice flour, Chinese sausage, shiitake mushrooms, and dried shrimps. This mixture is poured into a cake pan, steamed for an hour, sliced into small rectangles, thrown into a pan to fry, then topped with a bit of cilantro and hoisin sauce.
I was introduced to this peculiar dish years ago as a young Mormon missionary in Brooklyn’s Chinatown. Missionaries in my area were often invited by Chinese church members to join them for dim sum. We all thought this was a friendly gesture but now I think we were invited to be the entertainment. Our Chinese friends found it amusing to call all sorts of strange dishes to the table just to watch us corn-fed American boys struggle with the new flavors and textures.
At one of these dim sum lunches I became the victim of a cruel joke. A fried chicken, all parts still intact, was ordered for the table. I was told that that Chinese people savor the chicken’s head as the most delectable part of the bird. Not aware that I actually believed them, my friends placed the bird’s head on my plate. Everyone was stunned when I trustingly bit into a deep-fried chicken brain.
Once initiated I was willing to try just about anything new in Chinatown – jellyfish tentacles, chicken feet, and even fried frog legs. And now I understand the joy of introducing these strange culinary traditions to my unacquainted friends. This is why I went to all the trouble to make something not so immediately loveable such as the turnip cake.
I was invited to have dinner at a friend’s apartment Sunday night. I brought the freshly steamed turnip cake to offer as an appetizer. I fried small pieces to the right amount of crispiness and tried to plate my creation to look as enticing and friendly as possible. I watched and smiled as my friends poked nervously at their plates, wishing the turnip cake was actually a carrot cake.