Chinese food in the U.S.—unlike other Asian imports—has an odd dynamic of wariness and condescension. Witness the Westerner ploughing through a mound of fried rice by way of entrée. He's glad to avoid the unexpected or unidentifiable, while the restaurateur is equally glad to charge $10.95 for leftover rice studded with frozen peas and dirtied with soy sauce.
Fried rice—along with DayGlo sweet-and-sour chicken—symbolizes the unfortunate standoff between patron and kitchen. You may think you're ordering fried rice, but what you're really ordering is cultural compromise.
All of which obscures the potential splendor of fried rice. My Taiwanese wife rhapsodizes about it much the way that Italians rhapsodize about pasta. Taken seriously, fried rice is endlessly variable and surprisingly delicious. It's a comfort food of the Chinese street and a mainstay of the home kitchen, a means of dispatching—but also elevating—leftovers.
Over the years, my wife has incorporated cabbage, corn, chicken, duck, ketchup ("tomato fried rice"), steak, pickled turnip, seaweed, etc., in addition to the obligatory egg and onion. Whenever an unorthodox ingredient is added to the mix, the rice becomes "deluxe."
I prefer the simplicity of egg, green onion and roast pork. These are to fried rice what olive oil, pancetta and Parmigiano-Reggiano are to pasta: pillars of the classic. My daughter expresses this preference more concisely: "Nothing gross, please."
Most Chinese restaurants use low-cost, long-grained rice. This rice lacks a crucial springiness, a certain al dente resistance to the tooth. Exemplary fried rice depends on sushi-grade, short-grained Japanese rice. I recommend the most expensive rice you can find; as with cheese, chocolate and wine, price and quality tend to correlate.
The second needful thing—brace yourself—is a high-end Japanese rice steamer such as the Zojirushi NP-HBC18 ($274.69 via Amazon). As Scarlett Johansson has perfected the vacant pout, so Zojirushi has perfected the rice steamer. A Zojirushi will produce perfect rice with unswerving mechanical accuracy, leaving you feeling sheepish about your own iffy and spasmodic humanity. By all means try the stove-top, but the Neanderthal technology of brute fire cannot compete with Japanese engineering.
The following recipe, devised by my wife and myself, involves a "secret" technique: mixing egg yolk into the cooked rice before stir-frying it. The egg de-clumps the rice and lends both richness and a winsome golden hue.
This recipe is what I call "terminal." It ends the quest for something better and enters the family canon. We tell our daughter, "Pay attention—this is how it's done."
(serves 4-6 as a hearty lunch)
For the Roast Pork (cha siu ro)
3 Tbsp. sugar
1 Tbsp. chili bean sauce (see note)
1 Tbsp. fermented glutinous rice (see note)
1 Tbsp. rice wine
1 Tbsp. soy sauce
1/4 tsp. Chinese five spice powder
1 lb. well-marbled pork shoulder (see note)
1/4 cup honey
In a large bowl, whisk the sugar, chili bean sauce, fermented glutinous rice, rice wine, soy sauce and five spice powder. Cut the pork shoulder into slabs 1/2-inch thick. Add the pork to the marinade and thoroughly coat. Cover and refrigerate for 3 hours. Using an oven broiler or outdoor grill, roast the pork until attractively charred and cooked through. Closely watch the broiler: Pork drippings can ignite. Lightly brush the cooked pork with honey.
For the Fried Rice
325 grams (1 1/2 cups) highest quality short-grain
Japanese rice, uncooked
1 recipe roasted pork (see above)
6 stalks green onion
6 Tbsp. peanut oil
3/4 tsp. kosher salt (or to taste)
1/4 tsp. MSG (optional)
Cook the rice as per the instructions of your rice steamer. Place the cooked rice in an uncovered container and refrigerate overnight (in order to dry the rice). When ready to complete the dish, dice the pork into 1/4–inch cubes. Slice the green onion into 1/4-inch pieces. Separate 4 eggs, discarding the whites. With your hand, mix the 4 yolks into the cooked rice. Break up all clumps and make sure that every grain is coated. Beat the remaining 4 eggs. Heat a wok or large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add 3 Tbsp. of peanut oil and swirl to coat. Add the beaten egg and gently scramble until just firm. Add the pork and onion. Stir-fry until the onion is just softened, 1–2 minutes. Transfer the egg-pork-onion mixture to a mixing bowl. Add the remaining 3 Tbsp. of oil to the hot pan. Add the yolk-covered rice and stir-fry, about 2 minutes. Return the egg-pork-onion mixture to the pan, combining with the rice. Add salt and MSG to taste. Stir-fry until fragrant and well combined, 1–2 minutes. Serve immediately.
Chinese grocery stores stock chili bean sauce (doban jiang or doban djan) and fermented glutinous rice (nuomi zao). The latter lends an important flavor and the iconic red hue of Chinese roast pork (otherwise achieved with food coloring). The grains of glutinous rice conveniently disintegrate during the roasting process. Li Ming's Global Mart in Durham sells 1-pound slabs of boneless pork shoulder that are perfect for this recipe. Chinese brands of peanut oil are particularly flavorful, but domestic peanut oil or canola oil are adequate substitutes (do not use olive oil). I recommend a Japanese brand of MSG like Ajinomoto. Unlike Chinese brands, Japanese versions tend not to impart an artificial or chemical flavor.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Rice fried right."