Southeast Asia may be the only place in the world where it's acceptable to eat carrot cake as an entree for any meal. But there's a plot twist: The carrot cake I'm talking about isn't the ruddy, cream cheese-frosted dessert found in many Western pastry shops. This carrot cake is actually a savory, stir fried dish.
And it's not even made with carrots.
If you're walking around hawker centers in Malaysia or Singapore and come across char koay kak, do yourself a favor and stop walking. You don't want to miss out on this gnocchi-like local delicacy.
Char koay kak is part radish cake, part veggie stir fry. A vendor usually cooks these pillowy, radish cubes (made from daikon, rice flour, water, and salt) with eggs, oil or lard, fish sauce, green onion, chili sauce, and garlic. If you get it "black," the carrot cake is cooked with sweet dark soya sauce.
"The crucial ingredient is the radish cake itself," said Penang native and Kuala Lumpur resident Lum Voon Keong. Keong is the founder of a popular food and blog vkeong.com. "Some use factory produced, some still make it themselves."
Keong argues that another critical component lies in the cooking utensils. "The wok hei, which is essentially the heat's strength, it must be strong enough to introduce a charred but not burnt taste to the overall flavor."
Depending on where you are, you're going to get a different version of the dish. "It differs regionally," said Penang native and Kuala Lumpur resident Lum Voon Keong. Keong is the founder of a popular food and blog Vkeong.com. "In Penang you'd find most of them taste similar, but in Melaka, they use heavier dose of preserved radish."
The reason this radish dish is dubbed carrot cake despite the distinct lack of carrot involved is that the word for daikon, the star show in the plate, can also mean carrot.
"It originated from China, it's not invented in Malaysia or Singapore, but adapted into hawker food by the immigrants who settled here," Keong said of the dish's origins. "In fact you can find this dish in Hong Kong and many dim sum restaurants in the world, it's called 'fried radish cake,' sometimes with XO sauce."
Just like one does with the pastry version of carrot cake, you can eat char koay kak alone. It's a chewy delight, and it's comforting as hell. Go ahead and eat it morning, noon, and night.