Last week I was chit chatting with Dad, and we ended up talking about my grandmother’s vegetable garden and how hard she worked her land on 64 Visalia Street to supply food for her household and for the Mee Jan Low and Chinese Pagoda restaurants as well. Although the yard was small, she managed to grow a wide variety of vegetables.
Our conversation led to some of the dishes created with vegetables my grandmother grew and the number of ways they could be prepared. When Dad mentioned the row of my grandmother lo bak, Chinese white turnip, plants, I knew what I was going to make for dinner. And so one memory leads to another and to related food options and finally to dinner.
Maybe it’s because the weather has finally cooled, but lately I’ve been on a root vegetable kick, and lo bak is one of my favorites. Although the Cantonese word translates as turnip, lo bak is a member of the daikon radish family. While very similar to the Japanese daikon, the Chinese turnip has a darker cream color and rougher skin. It is hard to find the Chinese turnip in this area, so I substitute daikon in my recipes calling for Chinese turnips.
Daikon can be eaten raw, and it is often shredded into salads or pickled. I use them in soups and braises. In one of my early columns I shared a recipe for lo bak go, a steamed Chinese turnip cake that is a delectable dim sum favorite of mine.
Nutritionally low in calorie, rich in fiber, Chinese consider lo bak to be beneficial for digestion, enriching the immune system, lowering blood pressure, reducing inflammation and a source of calcium, potassium and vitamin C.
I knew that I wanted to make soup with the daikon I had in the refrigerator. I was aiming for one of my go-to comfort foods. Something served in a big bowl with a simple clear broth. Something reminiscent of the brothy winter melon soup we served at the beginning of each dinner in the Chinese Pagoda.
Most Chinese begin their dinner or lunch with soup; a meal isn’t complete if soup does not accompany it. In general, Chinese soups are both delicious and beneficial, as they are considered a necessary and delightful way to dispense herbs and tonics that is second only to teas.
I made a simple daikon soup with a pork broth. I grew up watching Dad purchase pork steaks, ribs, and roasts and portion them out into 1/2 pound to 1 pound amounts. He wrapped each portion of meat up with waxed paper, secured the wax paper with a rubber band, put each parcel in a separate plastic bag and then placed them all in the freezer for future soup making. Later I discovered Auntie Harriet did the same thing — the wax paper and rubber band thing. I assumed they learned this from my grandmother, which made me wonder when were rubber bands invented. Waxed paper? (On March 17, 1845, Stephen Perry patented the first rubber bands made of vulcanized rubber. Perry invented the rubber band to hold papers or envelopes together. Gustave Le Gray introduced the use of waxed paper for photographic negatives in 1851.)
This week I’m sharing my simple, flavorful and nutritious daikon soup. What makes this one of my go-to comfort foods is when I gild the lily by adding a scoop of hot, steamed rice into my soup bowl before ladling the soup over it. That is oh so comforting. And then, I gild the gild by using fu yu as a condiment for my soup and rice. This is true comfort food for my family and it is a glorious thing when something can provide comfort, great taste and substantial nutrition at the same time.
Fu yu, known as “wet bean curd’ or “fermented bean curd” is a pungent condiment made from tofu. It comes in two varieties, white or a spicier red version. It’s very flavorful, usually no more than a few cubes are used in one recipe. When I use it as a condiment with my soup, I scoop a smidgen of fu yu onto my soup spoon before I dip my spoon into the soup. I happily repeat this process until my soup is gone.