The white radish is commonly mistaken for a paler cousin of the carrot, but they are not even from the same family – the white radish belongs to the cabbage family or Brassicaceae and is related to kale, broccoli and cauliflower. And you can taste the difference: the white radish – also known as the daikon – has a pungent and pepperish, sometimes even sour, flavour.
Popularly used in Southeast Asian and East Asian dishes, the white radish is packed with calcium, vitamin C, phosphorus and potassium. It has a slightly acidic composition that makes it perfect for pickling. When brined or soaked in vinegar, the white radish can leave you with a sharp taste on the tongue – for some, it’s a pleasant palate cleanser before tucking into a main course (give these relishes a go if you’re looking to freshen up your taste buds). These pickles are frequently found in Japanese cooking and provide a refreshing accompaniment to match the generally clean flavours of the cuisine.
Less well known globally is a radish of Chinese origin known as shinrimei. It’s considered an heirloom variety of the radish family and has a dull green exterior or skin, contrasted with a fuschia-coloured or bright rose centre. Its unique, watermelon-like appearance is reflected in its Chinese name, which is sometimes translated as the roseheart radish or beautiful-at-heart radish.
Those who enjoy Korean food will probably know that the radish is an essential ingredient in its iconic dish, kimchi. Although the white radish is sometimes used, Korean radishes of the sort found in most kimchi tend to be sturdier or smaller. Take a look at some of the recipes here:
But the white radish is used much more widely than just pickles and relishes. White radishes can add great sweetness to broths or soups, and even provide a satisfying crunch in a spring roll. The Chinese, who sometimes refer to the white radish as lobak, also steam it to make a “carrot cake”. This process transforms the radish into delicious squares of lightly fried and starchy cakes. Those who enjoy street food might recognise it as the popular dish chai tau kueh. This is when the carrot cakes are cut into cubes and fried with bean sprouts, egg, dried and fermented radish (again!), and chilli. The spicy cake complements steamed buns and dumplings during a Chinese dim sum feast.
The usual chai tau kueh version you see in restaurants or made by hawkers are the savoury type, but in southern Malaysian states like Johor and Malacca, cooks may go easy on the dark soya sauce, resulting in a lighter carrot cake. The southern version may also be slightly sweeter. The stir-fry part of the recipe is easy, but remember the hard work is when you spend time grating the radish and steaming it with rice flour to make the carrot or turnip cake. Give it a go with this recipe.
No surprises here: the white radish, like all vegetables, is good for us. The United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research service notes that eating white radish strengthens the digestive system. Its diuretic nature also assists the body’s natural detoxification processes.
The US National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health found in a 2017 study that the peppery flavour of the white radish originates from isothiocyanates. This compound may be beneficial due to possible anti-cancer properties. The study found that consuming white radish helped to reduce the risk of breast cancer.
While the root is the most commonly consumed part of the white radish, its leaves are just as tasty and healthy and can be used in salads and simple stir fries. The leaves are loaded with vitamins C and A, and iron.
Plant your own white radish
Growing the white radish is easy; it takes only four to five weeks for the seeds to germinate and begin sprouting through the soil. In the US, many farmers grow it as a fallow crop to prevent soil compaction and its leaves are fed to animals.
Instead of growing downwards into the soil like a carrot, the radish root grows upwards. To help with its growth, you are encouraged to build up the soil around the plant as the root rises from the soil surface. Give it plenty of water and sunshine, and harvest the root vegetable after four weeks of growth. If you leave it longer the root may become too chewy or fibrous.
If you’re growing it at home, you can ensure that nothing goes to waste by a combination of preserving and pickling, blanching and freezing. Because of its starch content, you can even use white radish as a rice alternative by pulsing or grating it. Here’s a recipe that uses both leaves and root!
Here are a few recipes that underline the diverse uses of the white radish and will also help you test your cooking skills.