Saturday, 20 October 2012

Steamed Carrot Cake – My Tiong Bahru Days

I spent many happy days roaming the Tiong Bahru estate when I was a boy. As I had relatives who lived there, it was usual for me to stay with them during the school holidays and festive seasons. Their home was a four-story walk-up apartment in Art Moderne architecture, which was the typical housing type of the estate. I particularly enjoyed sitting on the stout parapet wall of the balcony, waiting for hawkers to pass by on their trishaws or bicycles.

Every family in those days kept a basket handy at home; the basket would have a long string attached to it. When a food vendor rode past, one would shout out one’s order to him or her. Then, the basket would be brought into action: the payment, and the necessary containers to hold the food, would be placed in the basket, which would be lowered to the ground. After a few minutes, the basket would be tugged back up, holding the food and the change if any!

The community of Tiong Bahru consisted largely of average to above-average wage earners, with decent disposable incomes.  There was a busy wet market in the center of the neighborhood; and even back then, Tiong Bahru was known for its easy availability of good-quality raw produce, groceries, and hawker food.

I vividly remember one stall, in particular, in the market. It was owned and operated by the mother of Miss Chan Choy Siong. Miss Chan was a founder of the Women’s League in Singapore. She was also one of the first four female PAP candidates to be elected into the self-governing Assembly in 1959. She was a parliamentarian until her retirement in 1970.

Her mother’s food stall was modest, occupying a space of roughly 3-sq-meters, and she sold traditional Cantonese breakfasts from dawn to noon. This included fried noodles, gingko nut porridge, and my favorites -- yam or radish cakes with generous lashings of garnish. I’ve always held her version of the radish cake as the gold standard, and have measured all others by it. Sadly, such quality and pride in cooking has become rare and almost impossible to find.

The recipe below quite faithfully reproduces the carrot cake that I remember … less, of course, its irreplaceable X-factor!
Photo by Mark Ong

Steamed Carrot Cake

Dried shrimp               30 g, soaked and drained
Dried mushroom        10 g, soaked and diced
Chinese sausage         2, diced
White radish               600 g, peeled and shredded thickly

Water                          600 ml
Sugar                          1 tbsp
Salt                              1 tbsp
White pepper             1 tsp

Rice paste:
Rice flour                     350 g
Wheat flour                 25 g
Water                           500 ml

Spring onion               2 sprigs
Fried shallot                4 tbsp
Fried garlic                  1 tbsp
Red chili                      2 tbsp
Roast sesame              1 tbsp

  1. Saute dried shrimp, mushroom and sausage till slightly brown. Drain and set aside.
  2. Saute radish for 1 minute. Add seasoning and simmer until the radish is slightly transparent, for about 3 minutes.
  3. Pour rice paste and continue to stir under low to medium heat. Make sure the mixture does not burn. The mixture will gradually thicken to a dough-like consistency that leaves the side of the wok clean. Add dried shrimp mixture and stir well. Turn off the heat.
  4. Transfer the mixture to a container, in two containers if necessary, and steam over medium heat for 50 minutes.
  5. Set it aside to cool for an hour, before slicing it into pieces and topping with garnishing.
  6. You may even add a drop of sesame oil or lard before serving the radish cake.


  1. Is the plain turnip carrot cake done the same way?

    1. Yes but you might have to adjust the salt and sugar for the right balance. If you are doing the plain version, a good mineral water might help in the texture and taste.

  2. Chef David, when do i have to add back the dried shrimp , mushroom that set aside? Do I use those for garnishing ?

    1. Thanks for spotting the error. Please refer to the amended recipe.