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Great Leftovers
The Humble Origin of Fried Rice


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 Rice?

 

Eventually 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 isn’t 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 yesterday’s 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.

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 wasn’t the greatest food I ever had but I got three reasonable meals out of it. I didn’t 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.

1 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.

 
Try these Chinese rice recipes:
Egg Fried Rice
White Rice
 
     

 

 
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