It is also known as "fried carrot cake" or simply "carrot cake" in Southeast Asian countries, as the word for daikon (POJ: chhài-thâu), one of its main ingredients, can also refer to a carrot (POJ: âng-chhài-thâu, literally "red radish"). There is no connection between this dish and the sweet Western carrot cake eaten as a dessert. This misnomer gave the title to a popular guidebook on Singapore's street food, There's No Carrot in Carrot Cake, which was written by Dr. Olivia Law, published by Epigram Books in 2010.
It is made with radish cake (steamed rice flour, water, and shredded white daikon), which is then stir-fried with eggs, preserved radish, and other seasonings. The radish cake is often served in large rectangular slabs which are steamed and then later fried whole.
Alternatives to chai tow kway include those made of taro or solely of rice flour.
The radish cake can also be eaten on its own, either just steamed, or steamed and then pan-fried, as opposed to the steamed then wok-fried with other ingredients in chai tow kway. Both the steamed and pan-fried varieties are commonly served topped with spring onions.
The versions served by hawkers in Johor and Singapore, where Teochews live, are typically prepared by frying the daikon cake with chopped preserved turnip, diced garlic, eggs, and Chinese fish sauce in place of soya sauce. Chopped spring onion is added just before serving. As you go northwards (e.g. in Kuala Lumpur), the same dish is darker due to the use of dark soya sauce, and bean sprouts are added. The "black version" mentioned below is not "chai tow kway", but "char kway" and uses rice cake fried with garlic (usually no preserved daikon), bean sprouts, eggs and thick sweet dark sauce.
In Singapore, however, it is more commonly cut into pieces and stir fried with eggs, garlic, spring onion and occasionally dried shrimp. There are two variants: the "white" version does not use sweet soy sauce, and the carrot cake is fried on top of a beaten egg to form a crust; the "black" version uses sweet sauce (molasses) and the egg is simply mixed in with the carrot cake.
The dish has many fans, particularly in Singapore and Malaysia, where it is enjoyed by people of different dialect groups and races, and not just the Teochews, and is served in a range of establishments ranging from the simplest hawkers to the most expensive Chinese restaurants. It is a much-loved local comfort food in the region, and can be consumed at various times of the day; it goes from being a breakfast dish, to a side dish, to a late-night supper dish. Many public figures are also known to have a fondness for the dish. Notably, the Singapore politician Chan Chun Sing has indicated his love for the dish in one of his speeches, indicating a preference of a particular variant of the dish (specifically the "S$10 XO Sauce chye tow kuay"), as opposed to the one commonly found in hawker centres and coffee shops, thus illustrating the many variations of the dish available in the region.