黑金: Old Radish Soup, an Allegory
that's right, we've got Cai Po 菜脯
Today, we launch one of the most potent ingredients I’ve come across: aged cured daikon. Also known as cai po 菜脯, it’s a star ingredient in Preserved Radish Omelet 菜脯蛋, a classic Taiwanese Hakka dish. These cured radishes are a traditional food—salted, sun-dried, fermented—and it’s been difficult to find anything in the US that parallels what can be procured at a Taiwanese wet market. Until now. Read on.
Stone Soup. We all know the story, told to us in our youth by parents, caregivers, or educators as an allegorical example of how generosity makes the world go round. As told: A poor traveler comes to town, in need of food. The townsfolk refuse to provide, citing their own poverty. Traveler begins to cook anyway, heating a stone in a pot of water. Curious folks come by, incredulous that soup could be made from such a thing. "It's stone soup,” says the stranger, “would you like some? But, we're still missing a little something... do you happen to have xyz?" Townsperson contributes what they can: a carrot, a bit of meat, garlic, a bay leaf, whatever. In the end, a beautiful stew is made and all are nourished. Sharing is caring.
Now, I'm all for sharing, indeed I am. But I would posit an alternate possibility: though stone soup was certainly made better by all the contributions of the townsfolk, the actual stone itself was pretty good to start with. And that's because what they thought was a stone was actually a dried, old daikon radish, cured in salt and aged many years. Dark as dirt, shriveled brown, unrecognizable as a vegetable, and very much looking like a piece of earth. But fragrant as anything and rich with flavor.
Old Radish 老菜脯 is a traditional cured vegetable in Taiwan, a daikon that's been salted and sun-dried, then stashed away in an urn for 3, 5, 10, 15, even 60 years. Drop the shriveled earth-looking thing into a pot, fill with water, and boil it a bit to produce a divine radish stock. Then add bits and pieces to it and cook it some more. Ginger, mushrooms, goji berries, corn, chicken, fried tofu, clams, etc. Stone soup, or, actually, old radish soup 老菜脯湯.
This is an old fashioned 古早味 Taiwanese dish. There are many variations: vegetarian recipes feature corn and fried tofu, others use pork rib and (young) daikon or chicken legs and clams. It's golden , somewhat primordial looking, and might be the closest thing to an elixir of youth that you could reasonably get your hands on. Dried old radish is nicknamed black gold 黑金 and often referred to as poor-man's ginseng 窮人人蔘 (though for the price it might equally be called rich man's radish). The allusions to wealth and value are notable, for from humble beginnings such a rich thing is made. Fermentation is alchemy after all.
There's a younger version of the preserved radish too, known simply as Preserved Radish 菜脯, also salted and sun dried, but aged only a short time. It's golden, not dark brown or black, and is the headliner in Preserved Radish Omelet 菜脯蛋. I've also seen it added to Flies' Head (a minced pork dish heavy on the fermented black beans and chives) and stir fried with shiitake mushroom and pork to make a rice noodle topping. And, it's a common filling in Taiwanese fantuan (thousands served daily) and tsao-a-kueh grass (mugwort) mochi, a springtime food served during Tomb Sweeping Festival.
Despite this ingredient’s ubiquity in Taiwan and its humble origins, the real thing is surprisingly hard to find here. It’s common to see finely chopped preserved radish, but with a diluted flavor and, often, colorants or preservatives. As for the aged version, I did encounter it once. I purchased it immediately but lost track of it. I'm sure it's doing its thing somewhere in the fridge at my parents’ house. One day after I’m long gone, someone will find it and the world will marvel at the still edible 80-year-old dried radish.
And so, without further ado, I’m happy to present you with Taiwanese aged daikon, made in Taiwan, the traditional way. May the omelet- and soup-making commence.
To understand better how a white radish could be transformed into black gold by microbes and the passage of time, I talked to my friend Rich Shih, co-author of the book Koji Alchemy (which we also carry in our Brooklyn store). According to Rich, the process of salt-curing daikon radish is similar to curing bacon (Baikon™). First, the moisture is drawn out completely by a high percentage of salt. For daikon, this means that the radishes are pressed, rubbed, and sun-dried to ensure removal of water. The salt and decreased moisture inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria, while promoting the growth of lactobacilli and other beneficial microbes, which consume the sugars within the radish to create an acidic environment. Throughout the process, wave after wave of different microbes (which depend on the curing environment) peak and die off, metabolizing and transforming the radish from sharp and white to mellow and dark brown.
For a very lovable demonstration of the process, watch the video below. Scroll to the end where the host tries the soup (8:32); his facial expression captures my feelings exactly.
Preserved Daikon Radish
To make regular Preserved Daikon Radish, the radish is sliced into wedges and massaged with salt over the course of two to three days. Then the radish is sun-dried in bamboo baskets for a few more days before packing.
All that daikon essence is condensed into a piquant, potent little shred of a thing . It’s got a lovely cui cui de 脆脆的 texture. It’s crisp and snappy as much as it is old and dried, with a texture reminiscent of the bite in salted jellyfish, pig ear, a perfectly prepared raw celtuce salad, or a masterful shredded potato stir fry.
To use, soak a few pieces for 3-5 minutes—the longer you soak, the less salty and piquant it becomes—then chop into the desired size and shape. For newbies, I’d recommend starting with a preserved radish omelet. it’s one of the simplest ways to get the most out of this ingredient. If incorporating it into a stir-fry, try dry frying it in a hot wok for 30 seconds, then adding the oil and other aromatics.
Author Clarissa Wei granted us permission to share her recipe for Preserved Daikon Omelet from her recently published Made In Taiwan cookbook. This recipe couldn’t be more different from a French omelet: like many Asian egg dishes, its cooked solidly through, almost crispy on the edges. The little parcels of salty, crispy radish contrast delightfully with the meaty texture and mild flavor of the egg.
Aged Preserved Daikon Radish
Each piece of the Aged Preserved Daikon we offer is made from the whole radish, nose to tail. The entire root is dry-brined in salt over the course of a month and then further sun-dried for one to two weeks. During the drying stage, it’s kneaded and pressed daily to make sure all moisture is removed. Next, it’s placed into a vat (repurposed from alcohol brewing) and left to age for five years.
During this prolonged aging process, enzymes and microbes turn the radishes near black in color and soften the texture significantly. The flavor is complex, earthy with a plum-like sweetness. Then the radishes undergo one final round of sun-drying before being packed for us.
It’s worth emphasizing again that each piece is one entire daikon, condensed down and miniaturized by age. Each package contains anywhere from ten to fifteen whole radishes, depending on their original size.
The most common way to use this is to make that old radish soup I opened with. The process is easy (you can even use a Tatung Electric Steamer): Put three radishes—you can rinse them or slice them, I don’t—into the inner pot of a Tatung Steamer, and fill with water to about 70% full. Steam in the Tatung for 30 minutes (this equates to about two rice cups of water in the outer pot). And, voilà, golden radish stock. Adjust for saltiness—it will vary depending on the size of the radishes you use.
Then, set about adding your other ingredients. It’s common to use a chopped up chicken leg, a few generous slices of ginger, dried shiitake mushrooms, and goji berries. Add another two cups of water to the outer pot, and steam for another 30.
If you like, add clams, fresh mushrooms, and other quick-cooking ingredients towards the end.
(You can do this on the stove too—follow the same instructions but use a large stockpot.)
I recently made a vegetarian version of this soup for myself, featuring tofu and dried lion’s mane mushroom (coming in October, watch this space). I felt like a million bucks afterwards, not even exaggerating. Black gold, it is.
Meinong Farmers’ Association
Pickling meats and vegetables is a fundamental culinary practice of the Hakka people. Preserved daikon radish is a common ingredient, alongside other preserved foods like salted pork belly and pickled mustard greens. Many households and communities make preserved radish at home as part of their fermentation customs. According to my partner Lillian, there isn’t a go-to household name brand for these products; they’re often found at the wet markets or shared among neighbors.
Our preserved radishes are produced by Meinong Farmers’ Association 美濃農會. Founded in 1919, they serve the Meinong Plains 美濃平原, a Hakka-populated area northeast of Kaohsiung with thousands of acres of fertile land. The association pools together the region’s produce and helps store, process, and sell the goods. In this case, they oversee the traditional production of pickled radishes after the winter daikon harvest.
Farmers’ associations are a common agricultural structure in Taiwan; almost every region has one. The associations provide warehousing and processing at a scale that individual farmers usually cannot afford on their own. At the same time, they also control production, selling a limited quantity of seeds to farmers according to anticipated demand. This can be a good thing—overproduction of food can lead to unnecessary depletion of resources and erosion of prices—but it can be a bad thing too—alternative growing practices may not be readily accepted. We like Meinong Farmers’ Association and the products they make, but it’s important to be critically aware of both sides of the coin.
There is an element of stone soup in all of this, though. Instead of gathering to add elements to the soup, the community comes together to make the originating “stones”—unspoilable carriers of flavor, the germ of a future meal in a less abundant time. Thinking through this topic, I found myself marveling, once again, at the magic in the ordinary things around us. In a time where dried, old things are undervalued and flash-freezing and refrigeration are king, this simple, humble ingredient feels almost subversive. Stone soup, it’s the oldest trick in the book.
In Other News
Happy Mid-Autumn Festival! We’re celebrating with a (sold out) Taiwanese BBQ co-hosted with Jessie YuChen at our Brooklyn shop today. We’re also presenting a limited run of Win Son x Yun Hai Shop mooncakes, inspired by Taiwanese-style mooncakes and all-American fall flavors. Available in person, through Sunday 10/1. Quantities are limited.
If you’re into the whole fermentation thing, I’ll be doing a small presentation on Taiwanese artisanal ferments at KojiConneCT 2023, hosted by The Yellow Farmhouse in Mystic, CT on November 5th. Details aren’t posted yet, but if you’re interested, reply to this email, and I’ll let you know when the event is live.
A hungry traveler,
Lisa Cheng Smith 鄭衍莉
Research and editorial assistance from Amalissa Uytingco, Jasmine Huang, Luke Miller, and Lillian Lin. If you enjoyed this newsletter, please share it with friends and subscribe if you haven’t already. I email once a month, sometimes more, sometimes less. For more Taiwanese food, head to yunhai.shop, follow us on instagram and twitter, or view the newsletter archives.