Give a hoot for root vegetables: perfect root veggies any time of year

Li Anlan
Staples of Chinese cooking, root vegetables such as carrots and radishes are versatile, inexpensive and chock full of nutritional benefits.
Li Anlan

Carrots and white radishes are two root vegetables widely used in Chinese cuisine throughout the year. Inexpensive and versatile, they also boast great nutritional benefits.

The carrot, known as huluobo in Chinese, is a vegetable parents enthusiastically encourage and even push their children to eat for its rich nutrients, particularly for the benefit of helping one see in the dark.

The humble root vegetable has a mildly sweet, woody and slightly bitter flavor, which some people, especially young children, find unpleasant but still eat it to support health.

Carrots are packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants. They contain Vitamin A in the form of beta carotene – a lack of which can result in eye disease.

Carrots are generally orange in color, and the most ordinary ones are very cheap – a kilogram usually costs less than 4 yuan (0.62 cents) or 5 yuan in local markets – while the more exotic and less common purple, red, black and yellow cultivars are more expensive.

The flavor of different cultivars differs slightly. For example, black carrots have a stronger woody or muddy taste than their orange siblings.

Radishes, or luobo, also have a crunchy texture, but are more pungent and spicy than carrots. They're not as nutritious as carrots, as they contain mostly water, but they're especially low in calories and carbohydrates.

Give a hoot for root vegetables: perfect root veggies any time of year

With a sweet and woody taste, carrots are packed with Vitamin A – essential for maintaining good eyesight.

Making carrots delectable

Carrots can be eaten cooked or raw. In addition to eating carrot sticks directly as a snack, raw carrots can be made into Chinese style salads.

One trick to make carrots more delicious and texturally pleasant is to slice them into thin shreds, which reduces the required cooking time and tones down the woody flavor.

If you're looking for a quick salad recipe that's perfect for any time of year, combine thin shreds of raw carrots, kelp and poached bean curd sheets with poached bean sprouts and needle mushrooms. Top it off with a umami dressing of light soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, sugar, garlic, cilantro and toasted sesame seeds.

Carrot pancakes are a breakfast favorite to start the day. Mix thin shreds of carrots in a flour and egg batter to make thin, soft pancakes, then add salt and scallions to boost the taste and aroma. You can also make them without flour by simply mixing the carrot shreds in a seasoned egg mixture. Some people like to combine an equal amount of carrots and potatoes or zucchini shreds to make dual-color pancakes.

Stir-fried carrot shreds are an everyday dish to serve with rice. The carrots become softer and sweeter when cooked in oil, and adding chopped scallions improves the flavor and fragrance.

Carrots can be stir-fried with proteins like scrambled eggs, pork and chicken. Sautee the meat with garlic, soy sauce and ginger, then take it out of the wok and set it aside. Then stir-fry the carrot shreds in oil until the texture softens, and mix in the cooked meat.

Adding wood ear mushrooms to carrot stir-fries is also a classic pairing.

Give a hoot for root vegetables: perfect root veggies any time of year

Carrot salad

Steamed carrot shreds is a traditional dish from Henan Province. After slicing the carrots as thinly as possible, add a little salt and let it sit for 10 minutes before squeezing out some of the moisture. Then add a little oil into the carrot shreds and mix well. Add flour and toss until every shred is evenly coated with a thin layer of flour. Steam the floured carrot shreds for five minutes after the water in the steamer is brought to a boil, and serve with a dressing of garlic paste, chopped scallions, sesame oil, peppercorn oil and salt.

This technique of steaming floured carrot shreds makes them more fulfilling and staple-like. Leafy vegetables like celery leaves can also be steamed. The trick is to dry the water from rinsing the leaves so the flour doesn't clot.

Carrot balls are an alternative to traditional meatballs. Mix finely shredded carrots with flour, chopped scallions, ginger, an egg plus salt and pepper to taste. The carrot balls not only have an appetizing orange color, but also rich flavors that rival meat. They can be eaten directly as a snack or added to stews with other vegetables.

Carrots are also great in stews with rich meats. A classic combination for colder months is carrot and lamb stew, which uses the natural sweetness of the carrot to highlight the umami flavor of the tender lamb.

Give a hoot for root vegetables: perfect root veggies any time of year

Pork rib soup with carrot and corn

Perfect for colder weather

There's a Chinese folk saying: "eating white radish in winter and ginger in summer."

There are two common varieties of radishes available throughout the year, but they're most in season during winter. White and green radishes are usually eaten after being cooked in China. The cherry radish is often eaten raw as a fruit or in salads as a cold starter. The sweet pink-fleshed variety with green skin known as xinlimei luobo, or "beautiful heart radish" in Chinese, is also eaten raw.

The common white radish with white skin and flesh is versatile, and can be used in salads, soups and stews.It can withstand a long cooking time and softens to absorb the meat flavor. Traditional recipes include white radish paired with pork short ribs, beef brisket or lamb. It turns transparent and soft, and the soups and stews generally require minimum seasoning with salt and ginger.

Give a hoot for root vegetables: perfect root veggies any time of year

Fried white radish balls

Sweet, fresh, white radishes can be thinly sliced and boiled in water to make an original flavored soup. Season the soup with salt and white pepper, and enjoy the radish slices with your favorite sauce.

Radishes can be made into vegetarian balls much like carrots.

Dried white radishes have a completely different texture and flavor than fresh root vegetables. They can be stewed in soups and braised dishes, or pickled with salt and chili powder as a side to noodles and congee.

The green radish, on the other hand, is a meatier variety perfect for stews and braised dishes. The sweeter radishes can also be eaten raw, but leave a lingering taste some people find disturbing.

The tender radish leaf is not food waste but a vegetable in Chinese cuisine. The fresh leaves can be chopped and stir-fried with garlic, ginger and scallions, poached to make salads or incorporated in fillings for buns and dumplings with minced pork.

Give a hoot for root vegetables: perfect root veggies any time of year

Stir-fried white radish leaves

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