This weekend, I had planned to to get a decent celebration spread together to celebrate the year of the ox. That plan was unfortunately foiled by the most epic snow storm that Seattle has ever seen in over a decade. So I did what I do best. I got together what was already in my pantry and refrigerator, and made something else. One of them was this savory taro cakes from scratch!
In the years that I have lived in Seattle, I have had trouble finding freshly-made taro cakes locally. The dim sum places usually sell radish cakes. Even though 99 Ranch sells blocks of packaged ones, the problem I have with those (like with everything else made commercially), are the preservatives, food conditioners, lack of freshness, and high sodium content. All of which are terrible for my health, and not what I want to feed my family.
The Dining Happy Way
This version is my preferred way to make Wu Tiu Gao. It marries classic Malaysian-Chinese and Cantonese techniques. I have adapted this recipe from a Malaysian-style taro cake recipe from the late chef author Ricky Ng. Then I gave it a little dim sum style twist. The ratios are from his cookbook Nyonya Kueh, but the instructions are mine. I’ve made taro cakes using his ratio twice, and both times it came out really good.
What’s the Difference?
Malaysian-style Or Kuih or Wu Tiu Gao are usually cut into 2″ to 3″ thick rectangular or diamond shapes. They aren’t typically pan-fried after steaming, and are sold individually as part of a kuih spread. To eat them, you would usually use the side of a fork to dislodge smaller pieces from the bigger cake.
Even though I have fond schoolgirl memories of eating taro cake in this way, these days I like cutting the cakes into thinner rectangles that are about 1″-1.5″ thick, and pan-frying them in a bit of oil like the Cantonese do. Instead of eating the cakes like you would a cheese cake, you pick the fried cakes up with chopsticks or a fork, and take bites out of them. If necessary, soy sauce can be used as a dipping sauce.
Instead of serving it kuih-style, I cut the cakes thinner, and pan-fry them individually.
That bit of browning on both surfaces of the cakes really bring out the flavor of taro that cannot be matched by just serving the steamed cakes as is. Frying also gives the cakes a bit of crisp on the outside. This treatment creates a membrane that gives some surface tension when you sink your teeth into the cakes. It’s a level up in terms of taste and texture.
Dining Happy Tips
- For non-spicy cakes, omit the chillies.
- For vegan taro cakes, omit the dried shrimp.
- For gluten-free, substitute the wheat starch with tapioca starch. It works really well.
This dish is fairly inexpensive to make. A bag of rice flour would cost between $1-$2 at the Asian markets in the U.S. The taro costs about $3-$4. With the exception of the dried shrimp topping, the rest of the stuff may come up to about $2-3. The dried shrimp might be about $6-$10 for 100gm. I’d say it would cost you about $15-$20 to make the full experience, and about $8-$10 to make the vegan version. You’ll have enough for a party of 10-12 people.
This is a weekend project… a 2-day process. You steam the cake the night before, cool, and refrigerate. The next day, you unmold, cut, fry and serve the cakes. Technically this can be done in a day (like in Ricky Ng’s recipe), but if you want to have a life, I recommend doing it my way.
Savory Chinese Taro Cakes
- Wooden spoon (to stir the batter)
- Non-stick pot or wok (to cook the batter)
- 2 Pyrex dishes (1.5 to 2 quart square or rectangular baking dishes)
- Kitchen mitts (to handle hot dishes)
- 12" Deep and wide wok with a lid or Chinese-steamer with a lid
- Chinese steaming rack (to hold the baking dish)
- Santoku or chef's knife (to cut the cake)
- Tongs or chopsticks (to pick up the cake pieces while frying)
- wooden spatula (to flip the fried cakes)
- 750 gm cubed taro 1cm x 1cm
- 6 tbsp vegetable oil
- 20 gm tapioca starch
- 25 gm wheat starch sub with tapioca starch if unavailable
- 400 gm rice flour
- 1 1/2 tsp fine sea salt
- 1 1/2 tsp white pepper ground
- 1/2 tsp five spice powder
- 1/2 tbsp sugar
- 6 1/2 cups water
- 1 tbsp sesame oil
- 1 tsp vegetable oil to oil the baking dishes
- vegetable oil for pan-frying
- soy sauce to taste
- 3 cloves minced garlic
- 100 gm dried shrimp soaked and processed into a meal
- 3 tbsp vegetable oil for frying the dried shrimp
- 1 bunch spring onion cleaned & chopped
- red chillies deseeded & chopped
Day 1: Steaming the Cake
- Use a large mixing bowl to mix all the ingredients in Prep B. Start with the dry ingredients first, then add the wet. Stir the contents until it becomes a milky white slurry solution.
- Heat a deep nonstick wok or pot (not pan) with the oil from Prep A on medium high heat. When the oil is hot, add the diced taro, and fry the pieces evenly until it is fragrant (about 5 minutes).
- At this point, some of the starch sediments would have collected at the bottom of the Prep B mixing bowl. Give it another mix, and make sure the solution is evenly mixed throughout (use your hands to mix if you have to).
- Add the Prep B ingredients into the pot or wok where the taro has been frying. Continue cooking and heating the mixture on medium heat. Stir constantly, until the starch mixture thickens into a chowder-like consistency. (About 10-15 minutes) Continue to cook the mixture until it feels like a batter, then turn the stove off.
- Grease two 2-quart glass baking dishes with some vegetable oil, and pour your taro rice cake batter into the dishes. Make sure you divide them evenly. Smooth over the top of the batter.
- Put a Chinese wire steaming rack into a clean wok or deep pot. Add tap water, until the water is level with the steaming rack or stand. Close the lid, and turn the stove on high. Bring the water to a steaming boil. You should see steam escaping on the sides of the lid.(The water should have come to vigorous, rolling boil)
- Open the lid and set it down. With both hands, carefully place one of the baking dishes with the taro cake batter onto the steaming rack. Close the lid, and steam on high for 30 minutes.
- As the steam escapes, the water will evaporate. Make sure you check the water level, and add more if necessary. (I added water into the wok every 7-10 minutes).
- After 30 minutes, transfer the dish out onto a trivet using kitchen mitts, and place the other dish in. Repeat and steam the second dish on high for 30 minutes, adding water when needed. (Tip: If you see don't see much steam coming out from the side of the lid, you need more water).
- When done, remove the second dish, and turn off the stove.
- Cool your dish completely. If there is steam water collected inside the dish, drain the water before storing your cakes in the fridge. To store, cover the cakes with plastic wrap, put on the Pyrex covers, and place it in the fridge overnight.
Day 2: Frying and serving the cakes
- Prepare your toppings and set them aside.
- Topping 1: Dried shrimp – Soak, wash, drain and break down the dried shrimp in a food processor until it is like a rough meal consistency. Heat a nonstick pan, add some oil, and fry the shrimp until it is fragrant and light brown in color.
- Topping 2: Thai chillies – Slice thinly, and set aside.
- Topping 3: Green onions – Slice your scallions thinly, and set aside.
- Topping 4: Crispy shallots – Buy this from the Asian store. (You can make this, but don't bother. It's a pain unless you make a huge batch and store it in the jar).
- Unmold the taro cakes onto a cutting board. Cut the cakes into 3" x 3" squares that are 1" to 1.5" thick.
- Heat a nonstick wok or pan on medium high. Add some vegetable oil to the pan, and fry the taro cake pieces on each side until golden brown (about 2-3 minutes on each side. Fry the cakes in batches until all your cakes are fried.
- To serve, sprinkle the toppings on the taro cakes. You may drizzle soy sauce onto the cakes for extra flavor. BON APPETIT!