Is there a Chinese dish as well known as fried rice? I doubt it. The technique of stir-frying cooked rice with a combination of meat, fish, or vegetables appears in all of China’s regional cuisines, north to south, east to west—a testament to rice’s importance as a staple food.
Rice is at the core of virtually every Chinese meal. To be invited as a guest to dine is to be asked to sik fan, or “eat rice.” If a family is well provided for, its rice bowl is said to be full; if needy, its rice bowl is empty. In my girlhood home outside of Canton, we had a large lacquered container filled with raw rice, and written on the outside were the characters seung moon, or “always filled.”
The Chinese have devised dozens of ways to prepare rice: It’s steamed, dryroasted, and cooked in clay pots; it’s made into cakes, noodles, dumplings, pastries, stuffings, and porridge-like congees. Mostly, however, it’s stir-fried in a wok.
The most classic version of this most classic Chinese dish is Yangzhou fried rice, which includes shrimp, barbecued pork, scallions, scrambled eggs, ginger, and garlic (the recipe here is for this dish, but I’ve left out the pork). But this dish has countless variations. You can use Chinese sausage, dried scallops, beef, and even untraditional ingredients like sun-dried tomatoes. There are no limits to invention, as long as you cook it properly. The keys to perfect fried rice are simple:
• Leftover cooked rice works best because it tends to absorb less oil. It also separates into individual grains better.
• A very hot pan prevents sticking. A well-seasoned carbon-steel wok is the ideal choice, but if you don’t have one, use a large stainless-steel skillet.
• Don’t overcook the eggs. They should be soft-scrambled and still slightly moist. They’ll continue to cook when they get tossed with the rice.
Essentials for the Chinese kitchen
Sesame oil is an aromatic oil made from pressed (and often, toasted) sesame seeds. Its nutty fragrance and toasty flavor adds an exotic note to many dishes and is a fine addition to sauces and dressings. Asian sesame oil tends to be thicker and darker than those from the Middle East. I prefer the former for its more intense flavor; it’s usually in the Asian foods section of the supermarket. I don’t recommend using the darker type as a cooking oil, though, as it tends to burn easily and, like a fine extra-virgin olive oil, its nuances evaporate with the heat. Instead, I use dark sesame oil as a finishing condiment, adding it to stir-fries at the last minute or drizzling it over steamed fish or into hot and sour soup. The oil can turn rancid quickly, but if kept away from heat and light, an opened bottle should last at least four months.
This thick, mahogany-colored sauce is made from ground oysters that have been boiled and dried. Oyster sauce is a necessity in the Chinese kitchen, not only for its distinctive taste, but for the rich, dark color it gives to dishes. I reach for it almost every time I cook a Chinese meal, whether it’s for a fish marinade, a pork barbecue, or a sauce. Supermarket oyster sauces are often overly sweet (they contain a lot of corn syrup), and to compensate, you’ll probably need to season the finished rice with more salt. Once opened, the sauce keeps indefinitely in the refrigerator.
Soy sauce has been a staple of the Chinese kitchen for 3,000 years. It’s made from soybeans that have been fermented with wheat, and it comes in several styles, from thick and dark to thin and light. All have their uses: Meats benefit from a dark soy sauce; fish are enhanced by lighter, sweeter soys. I prefer Chinese soy sauces, which tend to have a higher ratio of soybeans to wheat and tend to be less salty.
Rice in China can be short, medium, long, or extra-long grain. It can be glutinous (or “sticky”), white, black, or red. For authentic fried rice, choose extra-long-grain rice. If you can’t find the extra-long, regular long-grain white rice also works. Just avoid short- and medium-grain rices, which get sticky and clumpy once cooked. That’s fine for some applications, but for making perfect fried rice, you want to start out with cooked rice in which all the grains are separate.
For ingredients like Chinese rice wine, soy sauce, sesame oil, oyster sauce, and extra-long-grain rice, visit Ethnicgrocer.com.