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
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 all throughout China.
Indeed most recipes actually advise against using freshly
steamed rice as it is usually too wet and sticky, and
makes for a slightly gluggy meal.