Before going into university, I had almost zero kitchen experience. My only experience in the kitchen were several attempts (and I call them attempts) at baking cookies. I still remember the look on my brother’s face when he tasted my first culinary product: he took a bite off the cookie, chewed with the loudest crunch I have ever heard (it sounded like he was chewing on concrete). Stopped. Thought a bit, and said “It tastes like rocks, with bubble gum inside”.
This could have been the catalyst to my parents’ concern about my nutritional well-being when I left home to go to university. It was probably when they realized that I needed a crash course in several basic, easy, dishes that I can quickly whip up, with no excuse for skipping a meal because of exams and studying.
So one day, I was called into the kitchen, all the ingredients of a traditional fried rice were laid out on the kitchen counter, ready for Chinese Cooking 101. This was going to be my first cooking lesson. In swift and assured motions, my mom turned on the stove, tossed in the ingredients, and in no time, a plate of steamy, fragrant fried rice appeared in front of my eyes. It was this important cooking lesson that kept me alive throughout university.
Fried rice is a staple dish to a Chinese family, especially a southern Chinese one. It is like spaghetti with tomato sauce to an Italian home, or mashed potatoes to an English household. Every Chinese family must know how to make fried rice. There are several reasons why fried rice is so popular:
1. It is portable and convenient: You can bring fried rice anywhere. It is super portable. You can pack it in a lunch box and off you go. You can have it as a quick dinner and toss in anything that you have in the fridge. You can even make it for potluck and I guarantee you that it will be one of the most popular dishes at the party.
2. It is versatile: You can stirfry it with pork, with beef, seafood, veggies, garlic, with green onions…basically you can put in anything that you want. It’s pretty much a variation on a theme (of rice).
3. You can use leftovers. You can toss in whatever leftovers you have in the fridge into the rice and you’re going to have a delicious meal. Nothing wasted at all.
The key to making good fried rice is DRYNESS.
A good fried rice has to be dry enough. Each grain of rice has to be separate and not lumped together. It also has to be well-mixed with the egg that was added into the wok when the rice was being tossed. (I say ‘toss’, because stirfry is actually a tossing motion, whereby you toss the ingredients together with your spatula, rather than a ‘stirring’ motion as the name suggests. Tossing, rather than stirring, renders a better mixed stirfry).
For good, dry, chewy fried rice, the following must be done:
1. The rice has to be fluffed immediately after it is cooked. If you don’t fluff it, then the rice will dry into a large block. Fluffing it allows little pockets of air to come between the rice, which also allows the moisture to be released into the air, thus letting the rice become fluffy.
2. The rice has to be left overnight, preferably in the fridge. Leaving the rice overnight in the fridge will continue to allow the moisture from the rice to be released, making the rice chewier.
3. When making the fried rice, stirfry the rice by using your spatula to toss the rice in a fast and constant motion. From one side of the wok, slide/dig the spatula to the bottom of the rice pile, lift up the rice with the spatula with some height, and the toss the rice back into the wok. The motion is similar to digging a hole in the garden with a shovel. This tossing motion increases the contact between air and the rice, allowing the rice to release more moisture into the air, thus making it dryer and chewier.
For practice, I have posted a recipe below. This is a recipe for the common fried rice that you will find in a restaurant, or, to be used in rice casseroles, such as my Portuguese-Style Chicken Rice Casserole.
Fried rice is a variation on a theme. You could change the ingredients below. As long as you know the basics of how to make a good fried rice, you can add any ingredients in to suit your taste.
BASIC FRIED RICE WITH PRAWNS (2 servings)
- To cook rice the night before:
- uncooked jasmine rice – 1 cup
- water (for cooking the rice) – 3/4 cups
- For making fried rice:
- cooking oil – 2 tablespoons
- green onions (also called scallions, depending on where you are from) – 1 sprig – diced
- prawns, shells removed (optional) – 125 grams (you could buy frozen ones if you like. Just make sure they are de-frosted and the shells are peeled)
- frozen peas – 1 cup
- 1 egg – whisked
- soy sauce – 3 tablespoons
Cooking the rice: (my instructions below are for a rice cooker. To cook rice in a pot, please refer to this link on how to cook rice on the stove)
1. Put the rice in a strainer and give the rice a quick rinse under the tap to cleanse away any dust or dirt.
2. Put the rice in the rice cooker, and add the water, then, pat the rice down so that the rice is evenly spread in the rice cooker.
3. Turn the rice cooker on to cook the rice.
4. Once the rice is finished cooking, immediately fluff the rice. (Refer to point #2 above for the reason for fluffing the rice).
5. Let the rice sit for 15 minutes, then put it into the fridge overnight to let it continue to dry.
Making the Fried Rice:
1. Add the oil in the wok and turn the stove to medium high heat.
2. Once the oil is heated (you can tell if the oil has become as runny as water, and no longer thick like it was), add the green onions and cook until fragrant.
3.(This step is optional if you are not adding prawns). Once the green onions are fragrant, add the prawns. With your spatula, toss the prawns together with the green onions. Cook until the prawns turned pink and are cooked through.
4. Add the peas and toss together with the green onions and prawns with the spatula gently until cooked. (This part should be fairly quick because peas are quick to cook.)
5. Remove the rice from the fridge, and add them to the wok. Turn the stove to high heat.
6. In the wok, toss the rice together with the green onions, prawns, carrots, and peas until they are evenly distributed and the rice is heated (You can tell that the rice is heated when there is steam coming from the rice).
7. Once the rice is heated, make a well in the center of the rice, and put the whisked egg into the center. With your spatula, swiftly toss the rice in with the egg until evenly distributed and the rice turns into a gooey mixture. Your rice will look a bit gooey at this point but be patient. Keep tossing with the spatula until the bits of egg are cooked, and the rice is once again dry and no longer gooey.
8. When the rice is dry again and the egg is cooked, add the soy sauce into the wok by swirling it into the rice, and again, swiftly toss the rice with your spatula until the rice is once again dry.
9. A beautiful, steamy, colourful fried rice should now emerge in front of your eyes.