Monday, June 19, 2006

Cooking. fried rice.

Overheard at the grocery store last weekend: (the cashier was on the phone while checking me through). (paraphrased because I can't remember anything these days).
- I can't tell you that,'s an Asian secret. (at which point I started laughing).
- It's really, I just put some turmeric in it.
- I left some on the table...try it, it's good. You'll like it.

He hangs up, looks at me and laughs, because I haven't bothered to hide the fact that I'm totally cracking up.
Everyone wants to know how to make fried rice, he says, rolling his eyes at me. (at which point I laugh again).

Fried rice is one of the first things I learned how to cook, and homemade fried rice is light years away from the oily, over-salted or soy-sauced fried rice you get at Chinese restaurants. When I was in college, we made it practically every week, if not oftener. At its simplest, it needs nothing more than cold, leftover rice, scallions, and eggs. I like to add peas, and cubes of ham or bacon; for me it makes a one-dish meal for lazy nights. Everything is a matter of preference - my father likes to fry the scallions first, so they brown lightly and add more depth of flavor to the rice. My mother likes to stir in the scallions at the end, so they are fresh and light and crisp. I like it both ways. There are also two schools of thought regarding the eggs - I scramble them first, gently, until the egg is just cooked. My grandfather prefers his fried rice with the beaten egg stirred into the fried rice and then cooked, everything tossed together until the egg coats the rice with a golden crust. The former yields a moister, lighter fried rice with tender bits of scrambled egg; the latter tends to be drier, with crusty bits where the egg melded with the rice as it cooked. When I make it with bacon, I leave just a little of the bacon fat in the pan so that when I cook the rice the flavor really infuses the whole dish; if I use ham I fry the ham a little first, so it browns a bit before I add the peas and rice.

The trick is to use leftover rice that's at least a couple of days old, or even a week old. Sometimes I'll leave it in the fridge uncovered, overnight. It's easier to break up the clumps of rice when it's a little on the dry side, so you don't get lumps of rice. (I sometimes used to get told off for not sufficiently de-clumping the rice, not breaking the scrambled eggs evenly into tiny shreds, or not chopping the scallions finely enough). Takeout rice tends to be long-grain white rice, which is looser, drier, and fluffier than the slightly sticky medium-or-short-grain rice we eat at home, and the end result will have a slightly different texture. You can put anything you like in it; some people like to put frozen corn (defrost any frozen vegetables before you cook with them), chopped carrots or any other vegetable you can think of, chunks of barbeque pork or lop cheung sausage. Anything you like, anything you've got in the fridge. We've even used smoked salmon, finely minced garlic when we forgot to buy scallions, or cabbage. Tonight's version will have scallions, eggs, peas, and cubes of Black Forest ham. Dinner awaits.

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