Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.
Can 7 Billion People Be Wrong?
Did you know that . . .
- Half of the world’s population of 7 billion eats rice on a daily basis.
- 90 percent of those people live in Asia.
- 20 percent of the world’s total calorie intake comes from rice.
- Rice is grown on every continent except Antarctica.
- The oldest evidence of rice used as food is grains found in a rock shelter in the Hunan province of China—they are at least 10,000 years old according to radiocarbon dating.
Fried Rice Is Not Merely Take-Out Food
If so many people across the globe consume rice on a daily basis, one might assume that a few of those people are eating fried rice.
Fried rice actually has a long and interesting history. Food historians tell us that the dish originated in the Yangzhou province, and was created not merely as a “fast food” but as a frugal means of using whatever ingredients might be on hand, with rice as the common thread that pulls everything together into a harmonious mix of tastes and textures.
The people of Asia have probably 10,000 years of experience in making fried rice, but the American experience is less than 200 years old. People from China began their immigration to the United States in the 1850s hoping to find a better life during the California gold rush. They worked in the mines and established communities (Chinatowns) because they were not allowed by law to own land of their own. In these small ghetto areas, they started their own small businesses, including restaurants. The food in these restaurants was improvised to accommodate American tastes and adapt to the availability of ingredients.
According to an article in Wikipedia:
. . .cooks developed a style of Chinese food not found in China. Restaurants . . . provided an ethnic niche for small businesses at a time when the Chinese people were excluded from most jobs in the wage economy by ethnic discrimination or lack of language fluency. By the 1920s, this cuisine. . . became popular among middle-class Americans.
So, what does it take to make great fried rice? Let's look at the basic components.
The most common problem with fried rice is texture. No one wants a bowl of fried rice that is a mushy, gloppy, soggy mess. Minute Rice won't work. Hot rice fresh from the steamer won't work. Perfect fried rice requires P.R.A.P.P.—perfect rice and prior planning. But, don't let that scare you away.
My friend Kenji, the chief culinary consultant of Serious Eats (and author of the James Beard Award-nominated column The Food Lab), is obsessed with food science and understanding how foods work (and also how they don't). He embarked on a discovery of fried rice. Kenji tried long-grain, he tried short-grain, he used parboiled rice, and he even used Thai fragrant jasmine rice. Some rice he used immediately, some was covered and stored in the refrigerator—he even brought out a house fan to speed up evaporation, thinking that moisture could be a culprit. Here's a summary of what he found:
- Medium-grain rice works best. Long-grain rice tends to break down. Short-grain sushi rice works too—but as you know it is sticky, so it tends to clump together.
- Moisture is not your friend, but you don't need days-old rice. Freshly-cooked rice is perfectly fine if you spread it out so that the steam will escape.
- Mash it up. Well, mashing is too-strongly worded. If you are using rice that was pre-cooked, stored, and is clumped together, break it up (fingers work best here) before attempting to toss it into your wok for stir-frying.
Although fried rice can be an exercise in "clean-out-the-fridge," bear in mind that you don't want to overwhelm your fried rice with an abundance of goodies. After all, the rice should be the star of the show.
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Consider flavor, texture, and color. Keep all of the players the same size (less is more).
- Diced onion, carrot, and celery all play nicely together and cook at the same rate.
- Frozen peas contribute bright color (and you don't need to defrost them).
- Diced red bell pepper would be nice as would teeny tiny bits of broccoli florets.
Scrambled egg is a must in my fried rice, but you don't need to prepare it separately and artfully display strips of it on top of the fried rice when you present the dish. I like little bits of cooked egg throughout my Chinese rice (and it's easier to cook that way too). Simply push your (almost finished) rice and veggies to one side, break in the egg or eggs, and quickly scramble right in the center of the pan. Easy peasy.
Not a necessity, but if you need to use up a bit of leftover chicken, turkey, beef, or roast pork, by all means, toss it in right after adding the egg. Chop it up finely so that it heats quickly and evenly and so that you can get a little bit of the meat with every bite.
I am a huge proponent of using olive oil (a heart-healthy oil) as often as possible. I don't deep-fry. Olive oil takes care of most sauteeing needs. But once in a while (for example, when you whip out the wok and need to stir-fry on high heat), olive oil simply won't do. It has a low smoke point, which means that it will flame and become bitter before it reaches the proper heat for quick stir-frying.
Peanut oil to the rescue. It's what Asian cooks use and with good reason. Trust me on this.
Sauce and Seasoning
Soy sauce, fish sauce, hoisin, oyster sauce—any or all of these are a great addition to a meal of fried rice if your dish is lacking in flavor, texture, color, and freshness. There's nothing like an overly-healthy dash, splash, double-glug of liquid umami to disguise what would have/could have been a delightful meal.
Are you getting my drift? If you have wonderful toothsome rice, freshly scrambled eggs, a few tender bites of meat (optional), and fresh veggies, why drown all of it in a heavy dose of sauce to obliterate, mask, and obscure those wonderful tastes and textures?
In the words of The Eagles, "Take it Easy." A teaspoon of soy, a teaspoon of toasted sesame oil, a pinch of 5-spice (my own personal addition), a mini-glug of hoisin, and a dash of salt should be plenty seasoning for your perfect fried rice.
Herbs and Fresh Things
Fresh herbs lend such a bright, clean flavor to any dish. If you can grab a bit of parsley, cilantro, chives, or even mint (used sparingly) please do so. Don't add at the start. Toss it on at the very last second.
Perfect Chinese Fried Rice
Yield: 2 to 3 servings
- 2 tablespoons peanut oil, divided
- 2 cups cooked rice (see guidelines above)
- 1/2 cup finely chopped yellow onion
- 1/2 cup finely diced vegetables (any combination of carrots, celery, bok choy, red bell pepper, green beans, broccoli florets)
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon toasted sesame seed oil
- 1 teaspoon hoisin
- 1/2 teaspoon Chinese 5-spice powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 egg
- 1/2 to 1 cup finely-minced cooked meat (chicken, ham, roast pork, beef), optional
- Handful of fresh herbs. minced
- Prepare all of your ingredients ahead of time (mise en place). Once you begin cooking, you won't have the time to stop and measure out ingredients, mince and chop veggies or (for example) dice up leftover cooked chicken.
- Heat one tablespoon of the oil in a wok over high heat. Add rice and, working quickly, stir and toss for about 2 minutes.
- Push the rice to the side and add the veggies, sauces, and seasonings. Stir and toss for a minute or until the vegetables begin to color and soften (if they are diced small this shouldn't take long at all).
- Push veggies off to the side and add the remaining cooking oil. Break the egg into the pan and begin to stir (immediately) to break the yolk and begin scrambling the egg. It will be done in moments.
- Push the rice and veggies back to the center of the wok. Add the meat (if using) and toss everything quickly so that all components are combined and heated through. Serve immediately and garnish with fresh herbs.
© 2020 Linda Lum