Fried rice is simple, endlessly adaptable and a perfect solution for using up leftovers, so why is it so often disappointingly bland, stuck to the pan or clumped together in a sodden mass when made at home? You could be doing fried rice all wrong.
I was recently schooled in the right way to make this popular dish while visiting the Vancouver home of Lee Man, a food blogger and Chinese restaurant expert. As a founding judge for the Chinese Restaurant Awards, Man eats out too often to spend much time in his own kitchen, but he knows who to turn to for the best fried rice secrets. He invited chef Doug Chang, owner of Ai & Om Knives, to demonstrate the best way to make this simple dish shine.
“Asian culture really respects rice,” says Chang. “It is ingrained in how we think about food.”
“It is usually how we begin a conversation,” says Man. “In Cantonese sik fan means ‘eat rice’. It’s the first thing we ask, not just ‘have you eaten?’, but ‘have you eaten rice?’”
Here are Man and Chang’s expert tips for making the ultimate fried rice.
Chang starts with long-grain jasmine rice. “It can be any kind of rice, but I prefer jasmine because it’s what I grew up with. Some of the shorter grain rices can be stickier. But it comes down to what you like to eat.” Whether using basmati or brown rice, make sure it is well-cooked but not mushy.
If your rice skills aren’t stellar (and you don't have a rice cooker), an easy shortcut is to just buy some steamed rice from any Chinese restaurant (which is what Chang did for his demo).
“Rice is too soft when first cooked,” says Chang. “Fresh steamed rice is great for eating right away but fried rice [tastes] time to dry out, overnight rice is best.” If possible, try and spread it out on a plate or tray in the fridge to let the grains dry. When making boiled rice and looking to reduce stickiness but also enhance the flavour during the initial cooking process, frying your rice first will help.
Chang begins by breaking up the rice with his fingers before adding to the pan. “You need to oil your hands,” says Chang. “The oil will transfer to the rice and ensure no clumping.” Any neutral oil will do; Chang used grapeseed. The benefit of this method is that you use less oil when cooking. “People tend to add more oil in the pan to help with declumping,” says Man wagging his finger. “Don’t do this or you’ll have greasy rice.”
Whatever ingredients you use, don’t use too many and cut them into a small dice. Lee Man has a test for the perfect balance of ingredients when making fried rice: “All the elements should fit easily on one spoonful.” When you take a bite you should get a taste of everything at the same time.
Scramble your eggs as you normally would but remove them from the heat when they're still a little wet. Continue breaking them up (they’ll finish cooking as you do this) so they’re in small "curds," then set them aside.
Canadian lap chang (the Cantonese word for Chinese sausage; a similar Filipino sausage is called langonisa) is famous outside of Canada. When Man was living in San Francisco, which has one of the largest Chinatowns in the world, he would still seek out the Canadian version of this Chinese sausage (look for the Canadian flag on the label). Chang says it's considered such a specialty that his dad would even take it when travelling to Asia. “He'd fill a suitcase with lap chang from Dollar Meats [in] Chinatown and take it to Hong Kong to give as gifts.” You don’t have to use lap chang, but it's a really tasty way to add a traditional element to the dish.
You don’t need a wok for great fried rice but you do need a good nonstick pan or a well-seasoned cast iron pan. And don’t add the rice before the pan is hot. “A cold pan is a recipe for sticking,” says Man. "When you add a neutral oil, it should move freely, with a shimmer. That’s when you know it’s ready for the rice."
Chang says you’re not actually frying the rice, just heating it. On that note, remember that this is not risotto, “Don’t make it wet or saucy, you want it dry and [with] distinct [grains],” says Chang.
For a medium pan, two cups of rice is sufficient, you want the ingredients to be able to move around as you cook. If your pan is overcrowded then the ingredients will steam and become too moist or soggy.
“I like the rice to be neutral. Chinese home cooks use soy very sparingly,” says Man. Chang only seasons the rice with salt, no soy sauce at all.
“Fried rice should be fairly clean,” says Chang. “Rice is always the base, you can have different condiments or additions but keep the ingredients minimal. It is a side dish; it normally wouldn’t be a whole meal.”
Man adds a few drops of sesame and stirs it in. The delicate aroma completely changes the dish. “Never [overdo] sesame, just use a few drops to scent the dish right before serving,” Man says before admitting to a guilty pleasure: sweet Thai chili sauce. “In Hong Kong, they love ketchup. Use whatever you want, just show some restraint.”
This is a fast, easy dish, which is why you need everything ready before you heat up the pan. Be sure to prep all ingredients in advance, including the egg, because once you get going, the cooking happens fast.
Keep in mind that no ingredient is typical of this recipe but the rice and the egg, so you can add whatever you want. Below is the method Chang follows.
1. Coat the pan with a thin layer of neutral oil (grapeseed oil is a good option).
2. Lightly brown a few slices of fresh ginger and remove from pan (this scents the oil).
3. Add sausage (if using) and render out some fat.
4. Add rice and some minced garlic. Toss well.
5. Add any other ingredients you're using (diced chicken or diced veggies) and toss.
6. Add the pre-made scrambled egg, toss again.
7. Remove pan from heat, finish with chopped scallions and season to taste.
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