My first attempt at cooking
fried rice was memorable. Having just moved out of home to
live on my own for the first time, I was inexperienced in
the Way of the Kitchen. I didn't have a recipe but I had eaten
fried rice plenty of times and thought it would be reasonably
simple. So I heated a little oil in the wok, added the rice
and began to stir. Being a quick learner I soon realised that
there was a problem when the rice started to smoke and turn
black. It really wasn't my fault - if you need to steam the
rice before frying it, why isn't it called Steamed and Fried
my cooking skills improved, but it says a lot that one
of the first dishes I ever tried to cook was fried rice.
Decade after decade it remains a perennial staple of
Chinese eateries worldwide
It is a dish so widely
accepted these days that some non-Chinese restaurants also
feature it on their menus. Most countries in South East Asia
such as Indonesia and Thailand have their own versions of
the dish that they learnt from the Chinese but now consider
part of their national cuisine.
Regardless of how popular it might be in other countries,
in China fried rice is not an everyday home cooked food. It
is an odd dish, out of sorts with the classic way of eating.
The vast majority of rice is consumed as a staple (fan), a
base for vegetables and meat (cai). The Chinese like their
rice steamed, white, and fluffy, but most of all plain, and
few foods are as pure and plain as a bowl of rice, cooked
as it is even without salt. Rice stands in complete contrast
to the well seasoned vegetable and meat dishes that accompany
it. For in the important family evening meal, what the cook
strives for is a balance between the bland fan and stronger
tasting cai. That balance however varies according to means.
In traditional times a wealthy landlord might eat a bowl or
two of rice with as many cai dishes as he liked. The struggling
peasant on the other hand, would have to be be satisfied with
two or three bowls of fan and a little cai.
If Chinese prefer to eat plain steamed rice, what brought
about the invention of fried rice? We can assume it is a product
of rice-growing south China. The Who and When part of the
equation isnt known but we can speculate as to Why it
was invented. Imagine yourself, if you can, as the mother
of a peasant family of seven in some past time. The gods do
not always smile on your little patch. You have seen hard
times and you appreciate the value of hard work and thrift.
Planting season is a very busy time requiring all hands in
the fields. Thankfully,a long backbreaking day is finally
over. The others are still outside washing paddy muck from
their arms and legs. The talk is only of hunger and exhaustion.
A quick meal is required but you have been in the fields all
day too, and tonight all you can find is a few scraps of vegetables.
These are well past their prime but are still too good for
the pigs. But there is yesterdays leftover rice, 1
and there is always soy sauce, a bit of lard and a clove or
two of garlic. You toss it all in the wok and fry it up as
a single dish. Ten minutes later the whole family is gorging
on fried rice, happy to have a break from their usual diet.
Trust the ever-resourceful Chinese to create a tasty meal
out of what others would throw away.
Beyond the basic technique and usual seasonings, there is
no strict formula for fried rice. Certainly there is no fixed
list of ingredients, so it is a great way to make use of what
you have available whether fresh or not. Restaurants, we have
to hope, are utilising fresh ingredients most of the time.
Today in China fried rice is eaten more out of choice than
necessity. Typically it is served as a meal-in-one dish enjoyed
for lunch by one or more people, or as a simple dinner, perhaps
with a soup or a vegetable dish. Tasty or not, because of
its humble origins fried rice ranks lowly on the hierarchy
of Chinese dishes, and has no place on the banquet table.
What we experience when we go out for a big meal in a Chinese
restaurant in France or Canada for example, has little to
do the everyday diet of the vast majority of Chinese. This
is not necessarily an issue of authenticity, but it is one
of class. But when you sit down to a plate of fried rice,
you are eating like a peasant - the proportions of rice, vegetables
and meat are about the same as what a peasant would eat, regardless
of how it is prepared.
With all that rice, the usual spring onions and garlic, plus
other chopped vegetables, and an optional tiny portion of
meat, fried rice is good for you. But nutritionists balk when
the rice glistens with oil or when an egg is routinely added
- and this is now a common occurrence even in China. They
would certainly disapprove of a dish doused in soy sauce .2
While I am not quite ready to admit that my first attempt
at cooking fried rice was a complete disaster, I will say
that later efforts were better, and in at least one instance
saved me from, if not starvation, then at least hunger pains.
One particular weekend I was broke and the refrigerator was
bare except for a packet of frozen peas and a few vegetable
scraps that had crawled back into the shadows. Things looked
quite grim until I realised there was plenty of rice. Those
vegetables turned out to be a shrunken, rubbery carrot, and
a partly rotten quarter of onion. So after trimming off the
worst bits and chopping, I fried them with the peas, threw
in the rice, and a dash or two of soy sauce. It wasnt
the greatest food I ever had but I got three reasonable meals
out of it. I didnt know it at the time but I had stumbled
onto the rationale for the invention of the dish and in the
process proved just how flexible, forgiving and cheap the
basic fried rice formula is.
If the people of the south turned their leftovers into fried
rice,.what did northerners do with their odd food scraps?
They cooked virtually the same dish, substituting noodles
for rice and called it fried noodles (chow mien). These days
both dishes are available throughout China.
by Stephen Jack
Most recipes actually advise against using freshly steamed
rice as it is usually too wet and sticky, and makes for a
slightly gluggy meal. Let the rice stand for two or three
hours to dry it out to make the grains easier to separate.
It should noted that unless used as a dipping sauce for dumplings
or breads, soy sauce belongs in the kitchen not on the table.
Unlike the practise in overseas Chinese restaurants. Chinese
dont add soy sauce to food once it reaches the table.