Daikon Cakes, Our Mom’s Way
I am the eldest of four sisters. In private, we compare ourselves to the only large, sprawling group of sisterdom represented in pop culture: the Kardashians. There are three of them, and four of us, so someone has to be Rob. That honor goes to Shaina, due to her predilection towards Thrasher shirts and street wear, and the fact that she has somehow transcended the prickly personality and tough exterior that is our inheritance, and is a sweet and self-sufficient person. Sometimes, she is the favorite. The rest of us fit into our categories. I am Kourtney, sensible, frowny, perpetually exhausted by the antics of my sisters. Jenny is Khloe, the least similar in resemblance, unflinchingly sarcastic, blunt and “kind.” Tessa, the third in line is Kim, the self-aware peacock with a kind heart. We are convinced that our dynasty is just as solid.
Now, we live together, segmented neatly by birth order, in compact apartments in Brooklyn. Tessa and I, the eldest of each set, share an apartment where we slink through the halls like largely silent wraiths, speaking in a shorthand honed sharp by deep understanding and blood. Sometimes we argue over things like who ate the last avocado, or whose turn it is to buy cat litter. Jenny and Shaina, the youngest of each set, sequester themselves in a different apartment not too far away. They watch a lot of TV at home. They both go to bed on the early side. Tessa and I will alternate falling asleep on the couch with a plate of food after a late night, My Cat From Hell playing on the TV to an unattentive audience.
We try to get together often, but conflicting schedules and laziness makes it harder than it should be. For a while, we were arranging monthly sister dinners, opportunities for us to descend upon a restaurant after hours of debate and eat while cloaking barbs in questions. Sometimes, a few of us don’t have any money, so Jenny and Shaina will come to my apartment and hang out for a spell, just four girls shoulder-to-shoulder on a sagging leather couch. Jenny will buy Tessa a quesadilla, and then we’ll eat half of it while Tessa’s in the shower. Someone will end up doing their nails. Rarely, a fight will break out amongst us, and someone will leave the house in tears, or one of my roommates will peek their heads out into the living room, then quickly retreat. We have short tempers, stubborn dispositions, and a tendency to think that we’re right, at all costs. When you meet my mother, it all works out.
My mother is one of four sisters, and we are descended from a long line of women who do things the way they want, when they want it. Recently, one of my aunts threw my ah-ma’s bike away, saying that it was too dangerous for an 80-year-old woman to ride. Ah-ma wrested the bike from the garbage and took it for a spin while wearing heels, and only broke her ankle on the dismount. My mother has absorbed this pigheadedness and passed it on to us, where we each deploy it in our own special ways. Jenny’s tenacious quest to always be right is both admirable and irritating. Tessa is sensitive, but masks it in bravado, which turns any argument into a walk through a minefield. Shaina is capable of holding a grudge for over six months. I, it has been said, never, ever listen to anyone else but myself. It’s as if through birth, our mother embedded a shard of her personality deep within us, but she is the whole.
We don’t call as often as we should. We are bad, because she is in California, and we are over here, sending texts and getting coffee and being there for each other. When things upset Mom in California, she calls each of us on the phone in succession, until someone—usually Shaina—picks up. If we’re all together, she’s put on speaker and set on the coffee table, where we take turns yelling into the phone, getting up from the couch, imploring the sister standing to get more water for the others.
These things—the yelling, the fighting, the group text that operates as our own sister-only version of Twitter, the deep love that we have for each other, no matter how much we’re loath to admit—are our traditions. They are small, but they are meaningful. The lunar New Year is another, and it’s one that we take seriously. Our tradition for this holiday, like so many others, includes just one activity: gathering in a room with ourselves, our loved ones, and eating a lot of food. In years past, we’ve gone to Congee Village, standing in a crowded lobby surrounded by short Chinese women with bad dye jobs that remind us all of Mom. We order more food than is necessary, and once the first dish hits the table, we descend, chopsticks clacking, rice shoveled with gusto and vigor into waiting mouths. We learned to eat with efficiency and cunning, because that is how our mother taught us, not as a result of a long and storied time with starvation, the Taiwanese countryside and the Joy Luck Club of it all, but because that woman really loves to eat. That is ingrained in us.
This year, the lunar New Year began this past Friday. The last email I saw mentioned dumplings, daikon cakes, and hot-pot, so that’s what we’ll be doing. When I called my mom to ask her what recipe I should include, she yelled at me about getting the right kind of steamer for five minutes, then asked me about my job hunt for longer than was comfortable. But here is her recipe for daikon cakes, which are traditionally eaten for good luck in Taiwan around New Years.
1. Go to your local Asian food emporium, and pick out two daikon. Argue with your sister about which daikon looks best, and buy them. Also purchase Chinese sausage, dried black mushrooms, dried cooked shrimp. Make Tessa use her rusty Mandarin to ask at the store where they keep the long-grain rice flour, and if that doesn’t work, show them the Chinese characters your mom texted you, and hope that they point you in the right direction. Purchase Pocky, to eat on the train on the way home.
2. At home, set the black mushrooms and the cooked shrimp in a bowl of water to plump up, for about 15 minutes to a half hour. Chop the Chinese sausage into little pieces, and make one of your sisters grate the daikon. They will not like this. Cook the sausage in some oil, then add the mushrooms, then the dried shrimp, then the grated daikon. Cook this about halfway through, or until it all smells nice. Drain a lot of the water off the daikon, because that’s how you know you have a good one. It’s watery. Then, dump this all in a big bowl and add rice flour, until the dough clings to a spoon.
3. Fashion a double-boiler out of, say, a giant stock pot filled with two to three inches of water, with a bowl turned upside down in it. This is not the steamer your mother suggested, but really, it is all you have. Pat the daikon mixture into a loaf pan, wedge the loaf pan on top of the upside down bowl, and steam for one hour.
When all is said and done, and a chopstick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, you’re good to go. If you want to be healthy, cut this giant brick of turnip cake into smaller squares, and eat with rice vinegar, soy sauce and chili oil, ginger and garlic mixed together. If you don’t, fry small squares in a little bit of oil until they are crispy, then eat them with family, friends, or both. This year, I’ll have them with my sisters. We’ll probably call Mom.
Top photo via intercultura/flickr.