I was reading American Vogue recently, where my very favourite food writer, Jeffrey Steingarten, remarked that fried rice is up there with pizza as one of his absolute favourite meals. This made me very happy.
Of the many things I love about Jeffrey Steingarten’s writing, I think what I love the most is that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He loves foie gras and Milky Way bars with equal passion. He acknowledges that even though he moves in the lofty circles of the professional New York food critic, he also lives in the real world, where people eat takeaways and snack on M&Ms and don’t always shop at artisan food stores. He has a laugh at his own expense. He’s fabulous.
Anyway, I’m right there with Jeffrey - even though I’ve never met him, I feel I can call him Jeffrey - on the fried rice. (And the pizza, for that matter, but that’s for a whole other posting.)
I think everyone who cooks will have their own version of what makes for the perfect fried rice, and often it depends on what’s in the fridge. There are versions of fried rice in dozens of cultures, from China to Hawaii to Cuba, and they’re all different. Like Paella, it seems, even with the Chinese version there are many ‘definitive’ versions depending on who you talk to!
My fried rice follows a bit of a pattern. It’s not authentic, if there is such a thing, but it works for me. Here’s my ideal breakdown:
Because I cook a fair bit of rice, I often have rice left over, usually Jasmine. Leftover rice is the best rice for fried rice, because it gets nice and dry in the fridge. I have been known to cook rice especially to make fried rice when I’ve really been in the mood, but somehow it’s not quite as good.
This is where I pull out the frozen prawns, which I keep mostly just for fried rice purposes. Chopped ham works, too, or barbecue pork (yum), or those little Chinese cured sausages called Lap Cheong. If I don’t have any suitable meat, I sometimes use the Thai dried shrimps, which add a tasty savoury flavour and a nice crunch.
Here’s where veges come in – I love cabbage, broccoli, bean sprouts, carrots, and spring onions. Pile them in; remember half the plate is supposed to be veges, people, even in a combined meal.
Egg is the obvious thing here, for its creamy, well, egginess. I make a little flat omelet and chop it up, and add it back in at the end. I also like soft veges like courgettes and baby spinach. Tofu is lovely, too.
Chillies, of course – fresh or dried. And I love a Thai product called “Chilli Paste with Soya Bean Oil” which comes in a large jar with a yellow lid, from the Chinese supermarket. It’s a cooked mix of chilli, shallots, sugar, fish sauce and tamarind, and so fulfils the hot, tasty, salty and sweet categories all at once. I adore it; I have to stop myself eating it from the jar.
Soy sauce or tamari is a must. Not too much – you don’t want it sloppy – but enough to colour the rice a little bit and get the nice umami flavour going.
I often add capsicums or other sweet veges for colour and flavour contrast. And for me - call me cheesy - peas are essential.
I can’t help myself wanting to doctor my rice on my plate, so I usually have an array of chilli sauces, kecap manis, sambal oelek and soy sauce on the table. I know, it’s chaotic, but sometimes I just feel like adding different things. Or sometimes nothing.
Fried rice is not really the kind of thing, I feel, that needs a recipe, but I understand that sometimes that’s what people want. So here’s one, from my book, Eating In. Adapt as you please.
Prawn & vege fried rice
1 tablespoon garlic oil
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
2 courgettes, sliced
1 head broccoli
1 cup sliced red cabbage
2 cups frozen raw prawns, thawed
2 tablespoons Thai chilli paste
3 cups cooked rice
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 cups baby spinach leaves
½ cup peas, frozen or fresh
1 red chilli, sliced
Heat the garlic oil in a large frying pan. Add the eggs and swirl them around to coat the bottom of the pan and make a thin omelette. When just cooked, tip the omelette onto a plate and slice into strips. Set aside.
Add the garlic, courgette, broccoli and cabbage to the pan and stir-fry for a few minutes until just tender.
Add the prawns and stir-fry until the prawns are cooked. Add the chilli paste and stir through, then add the rice and soy sauce, spinach and chilli and stir to combine. Cook just until the rice is warmed through and starting to brown a bit here and there. Add the egg back to the pan.
Serve in bowls with extra soy and chilli sauces on the side.