The difference between authentic, regional Chinese cooking and the Americanized versions most of us were exposed to in the Twentieth century is vast indeed. That said, we were raised on the latter before discovering the former, so there are times when we jones for the cheap seats. Nonetheless, there are genuine roots to all that Americanized stuff as well – Even sweet and sour whatever, or chop suey. Dishes made famous, (infamous?), here were generally a far cry from their authentic roots, due predominantly to a lack of proper ingredients. While Chinese immigrants often brought, grew, or made the tools and supplies needed for authentic cooking with them, those were neither truly desired by nor fed to American diners for many decades.
Happily, here in the 21st century, most, if not all of what you need to cook authentic regional Chinese dishes is readily available. Even in relatively small towns, there is often a thriving Asian market, and if not, it’s all there in online stores. Naturally, the recipe resources available to home chefs has blossomed as well; there are myriad cookbooks for virtually every Chinese cooking style and region, let alone classes, online videos, and groups dedicated to the exploration thereof.
Without a doubt one of, if not the most beloved Americanized dishes, is fried rice, and for good reason. The combination of proteins, veggies, fruit, and sauces is almost limitless, and few dishes are more satisfying when made well. Add the fact that it’s a perfect use for leftover rice, and you’ve got a perennial winner. Naturally, this begs the question – Where did fried rice actually originate?
Frying rice in some form or another has been done for as long as man has been eating cereals, and recipes harken as far back as the sixth century AD. The most well known variety is often called Yangzhou, after the city in the east central coast of China; it includes roast pork, prawns, scallions, and green peas. This is still considered one of, if not the signature version of fried rice, served at Chinese restaurants throughout the world, and called either House, or Special fried rice. That popularity doesn’t necessarily apply to China herself – There, myriad variants of the dish are found, especially in the south where rice is a major staple – Everything from heavily sauced Fujian and Cantonese versions, to Chāhan flavored with Katsuobushi, (Bonito flakes), and the red and white, yin-yang Yuan style. And that’s just China – There are signature versions from Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore, and Europe. There’s a Hawaiian version with Spam, and an ‘American’ version in Thailand served with hot dogs and catsup, and more varieties from South America and Cuba as well.
While you certainly can and should check out those recipes, the ubiquity of the dish certainly encourages exploration in the kitchen. Like spaghetti sauce, or mac and cheese, every household has a signature version that’s the best, so there’s no reason you shouldn’t add one of your own.
The real trick to great fried rice lies no so much in the add-ons, but in what rice you use – for the best results, you want cold, day old rice – or even frozen, (and that should be all the reason you need to save leftover rice every chance you get). The reason is moisture, or lack thereof. If you’ve ever tried making fried rice from fresh stuff, chances are you ended up with something soggier than you wanted. Using refrigerated, day old allows the rice grains to dry out somewhat, yielding nicely separated grains, and the slightly chewy texture we’re after. For longer storage, freeze rice in a ziplock bag with the air sucked out. Either way, once you’ve got your base material squared away, building whatever you like becomes a quick and easy task.
Next question – what kind of rice is best? Long grained white will dependably cook up plump, distinct grains. This is due to a couple of important starch molecules, namely amylose, and amylopectin. Long grain white rice contains the highest concentration of amylose. This starch does not gelatinize when rice cooks, so varieties rich in it yield that fluffy stuff we’re after. Amylose also crystallizes and hardens when rice is cooled after cooking, but melts readily upon reheating, again lending itself perfect to frying over high heat. Amylopectin, on the other hand, makes rice that is sticky and softer, and while that’s perfect for risotto or paella, it’s not so much for fried. Medium and short grain varieties are richer in this starch, while long grain white has significantly less. Thai jasmine rice is also long grained, but has less amylose, so can get a bit sticky. If you like the slightly sweeter taste of jasmine, Basmati might be a better choice for frying.
And finally before we cook, what about the best vessel for the job – to wok or not to wok, that is the question. The answer is, not absolutely necessary, but if you want the real McCoy, then only a wok over a really hot flame will give you that certain je ne sais quoi – the slightly grilled, smoky, almost burnt flavor notes great fried rice flaunts. When the weather allows here, we cook ours in a wok over the same propane powered burner we use for roasting coffee, outside – There’s no way I know of to get a hot enough flame inside, unless you’ve got a pretty serious commercial quality gas range.
Cooking in a high carbon steel wok also imparts a certain flavor note of its own, just as cast iron does. It’s a subtle thing, but certainly notable and for my mind, highly desirable. If you don’t own a wok and decide to buy one, go with a 14″ like ours, with a flat bottom and double handles, one long, one short. Take great care to read up on the proper initial cleaning and seasoning of a new wok – failure to do so can literally sink your investment before you even get started. Now, all that said, you can do a perfectly fine job in a heavy skillet, but in any event, use the biggest thing you’ve got in your kitchen – a big cast iron skillet or Dutch oven is a fine alternative.
Alright, now that we have our pan chosen, here are a few basic guidelines for the overall process.
Get your pan as hot as you can safely get it, and use an oil with a high smoke point, like peanut or avocado. Those elusive grilled/smoky notes depend on it.
Use the biggest pan you’ve got – this is why even good home woks are 14″ – an overloaded pan won’t get hot enough to do the job right. If you’re cooking for more than two, do so in batches, as you would when deep frying.
Don’t overdo the sauce – Too much of a good thing will overpower the flavor of delicate ingredients, and will make your rice mushy as well. Note: most soy sauce you find in stores is considered dark, even if it doesn’t say so – Light soy is notably saltier and more assertive in taste, so should be used sparingly.
Alright – Here’s our version to get you started.
UrbanMonique House Fried Rice
4-5 Cups cooked Rice, (1 Cup of dry long grain white should yield just right)
1/2 Pound Chinese Pork, fine diced
2 large Eggs
4-6 Scallions, trimmed and diced
1/2 Cup Chinese Long Beans, trimmed and diced
1/4 Cup Carrot, fine diced
1/4 Cup sweet Pepper, diced
1/4 Cup Green Peas
1-2 Tablespoons Avocado or Peanut Oil
For the Sauce
1 Tablespoon steaming hot Water
1 Tablespoon Dark Soy Sauce
1 teaspoon Light Soy Sauce
1 teaspoon Sesame Oil
1 teaspoon Honey or Agave Nectar
1/2 teaspoon Szechuan Pepper
1/4 teaspoon Smoked Sweet Paprika
In a non-reactive mixing bowl, combine all sauce ingredients and whisk with a fork to incorporate. Allow flavors to marry for about 10 minutes before use.
Scramble eggs until fluffy, remove from heat and set aside.
Preheat your wok/pan over medium-high until it’s fully heated through.
Gently massage the cold rice by hand, to break up any and all clumps.
Turn the heat up to high, add a tablespoon of oil to the wok and let it heat through.
Add the carrots and peppers to the hot oil and fry for about 2 minutes, stirring constantly.
Add the scallions, peas, and long beans and fry for another couple of minutes, until heated through.
Add the rice and pork, then fry for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring constantly.
Add the sauce and the eggs, stir to incorporate and heat through.
Serve piping hot.