The other night, I made up a new dish and thought it tasted pretty good. Hitoshi thought it was unusual to combine daikon and chingensai but I didn’t know otherwise. That’s the advantage of both of us loving to experiment in the kitchen!
Before jumping into the recipe, let’s take a look at the main players of the show along with buying and cooking tips.
Star #1: Daikon – the mighty Japanese radish
Daikon is Japanese for a big radish-like root vegetable.
The biggest I’ve seen was about 40cm long and almost 10cm across. Ones this big are great for shrine offerings to gods and huge dinners but go bad far too quickly for me to use.
How do you pick a good one? Look for daikon that is only as big as you think you can use in a few days. Daikon should be very firm and heavy for its size. The top should have a fresh-looking green ring. If the daikon in the store is even a little soft, walk away and try again another day.
Daikon can be eaten cooked, like in miso soup or raw for snacking. The inside flesh is snow-white and a little spicy tasting. Once it’s cooked, it becomes a little sweet and will also soak up the colour and some of the flavour of any seasonings used.
The skin is usually easy to peel off with a peeler but it can get more difficult as the daikon ages. If you have some older daikon lying around, it’s best to remove a fairly thick layer of skin. If not, and you cook the daikon, the edge can be so tough to the point of being inedible.
Star #2: Chingensai – is it like spinach, cabbage or ??
Chingensai is called bok choy at the local grocery stores. One of our friends who is fluent in Japanese and Mandarin said that bok choy was the incorrect name for chingensai. We can’t recall what he said was more correct. If you know of other translations of chingensai, please comment! I’m quite curious about this sort of thing.
The taste of chingensai is hard to describe. Like daikon, I find it a little spicy combined with an earthy yet crisp taste. When it’s cooked, it has a buttery taste. Hitoshi feels it is a cross between spinach and cabbage. I haven’t tried anything that comes close to its flavor – to my tongue, it is that distinct.
How do you know you’ve bought a good bunch? We prefer the small to medium size chingensai for versatility. Look for firm, solid green, fresh-looking chingensai that aren’t floppy. The edges of the leaves should be green (versus yellow or brown) and hopefully not full of holes. The lower, whitish portions should also be firm and fresh-looking. If what you’ve got is not this pristine though, it’s no problem.
The mini chingensai are a pain for me. There is usually a fair bit of dirt at the bottom of the stalk and having to clean out each and every tiny leaf is right up there with my joy in washing sand off fresh spinach. The larger sizes still have the dirt but they are easier to clean.
Hitoshi was taught how to cook chingensai properly by a chef in Japan. The trick is to boil it for only 30 seconds or so at the very end of cooking. Otherwise, it becomes limp, stringy and loses its vibrant green colour. Of course, you can cook it longer and it will still be edible (like I did unknowingly for ages), but cooking it less is best.
As I mentioned, Hitoshi felt daikon and chingensai together was different. That was his fusion part.
For me, the fusion comes from the sauces. Thai fish sauce and Japanese soy sauce (shoyu) blend together with the two vegetables to make an intoxicatingly good mix.
Thai fish sauce is noxious at first sniff. It takes a while to warm up to but once you’re hooked, it’s impossible to stay away. Don’t worry… I gagged the first time I stuck my nose in a bottle when I was volunteering in Thailand. Like natto (fermented soybeans), durian and a childhood experiment melting cheddar cheese on dried kelp in the oven (ever smelled rotting, cooked leather boot?), it’s bad, but you get used to it.
Japanese soy sauce comes in a multitude of intensities from artisan brews to mass produced but still acceptable options. Buying the highest quality you can is preferred but this might be whatever is available at the local grocery store. This is a-okay.
It also doesn’t matter if you go low salt. We went low salt for many years but have gone back to full strength. There’s something about the full salt version that seems to do better with how we tend to use it.
The amounts below can be adjusted depending on how much you have. Just make sure to scale up the sauce since there’s a lot of water in chingensai that tends to dilute whatever you are using.
- daikon – about 15cm long and 5cm diameter
- chingensai – 5 small-medium size bunches
- vegetable oil – about 1 tsp; just enough to thinly cover the base of a large, nonstick pan
- Thai fish sauce – about 1/2 tbsp
- Japanese soy sauce – about 1/2 tbsp
- toasted sesame seeds – about 1 tsp worth of a shake
- Wash, peel, and cut the daikon lengthwise. Then slice thinly. Place aside.
- Carefully wash the chingensai, drain well and remove holes, bruises and heavily soiled parts. Break large leaves into smaller pieces or leave whole as you prefer. Set aside.
- Heat a large, nonstick pan on high.
- Add the oil and gently swirl to thinly coat the bottom of the pan.
- Spread the daikon as evenly as possible on the bottom of the pan. Put a lid on and fry for about one minute. The daikon should be partially soft.
- Stir and shake the pan and remove the lid.
- Spread the chingensai on top of the daikon and add the sauces. Shake and gently stir the contents. It’s okay if the chingensai is fluffed above the pan. It will cook down. Put the lid on and fry for another minute.
- Stir and shake the pan again. When you lift the lid, the chingensai should be cooked down but still bright green and the daikon should be almost soft. If not, fry for 30 more seconds but watch carefully for burning. Soy sauce tends to blacken and burn very quickly on high heat!
- Turn the heat off and let the dish sit for about 30 seconds. Transfer to a bowl to serve hot.
For another option, try using Japanese soy sauce, mirin and sesame oil. And make sure to let me know if you give this a try!
Have you tried something similar? What foods or sauces do you like to combine?