I knew I’d get at least one request for fried rice when I emailed my siblings asking about their favorite childhood dishes. Sure enough, the following reply came from my older brother, “I would say a proper Chinese/Japanese fried rice is a staple comfort food for me. It’s simple but always takes me back to childhood food”.
Disclaimer: I am a HUGE snob when it comes to fried rice, as is my older brother, which is why I understood when he prefaced his choice with the word “proper”. But what is proper Chinese/Japanese fried rice? For starters, Japanese fried rice is really Chinese fried rice. I’m not looking to veer off into touchy foreign policy issues here. It’s not an invitation to begin debating Japanese history textbook revisionism or who really owns the Senkaku islands… This is just a simple statement; good Japanese fried rice is really Chinese fried rice.
I am willing however, to argue over what goes inside said fried rice. Perhaps it’s best to start with what should NOT be included. There shouldn’t be any chunks of softened pineapple dominating the dish with its sweetness. No bean sprouts poking out like tadpoles from a mound of rice. And no bright green broccoli florets with their promise of nutrition. As for the protein component this is not the time to start defrosting those questionable items in the back on the freezer. The rice shouldn’t be yellow from curry powder, or red from ketchup. And it should definitely not be brown from thickened soy sauce.
For me the best fried rice is flavored with both shrimp and pork; the rice is still white rather than stained brown from soy sauce, and the vegetables are uniformly cut and cooked.
The first really great fried rice I remember eating with my older brother was at the Seagull Hotel in Shanghai when he was six and I was four. We had just travelled with our parents, two-year-old brother and one-month old baby sister by ship, from Japan to China (that’s right, I said SHIP). At the hotel my brother and I would alternate between ordering the fried rice and fried noodles. I’m sure we ordered other dishes as well, but none stuck in my memory like those two big starchy plates of food.
Nowadays our massive family has a system for ordering when we go out for Chinese food (imagine the mayhem without one). Two or three of us will scan the menu and call off suggestions for the others to reject or accept, while another sibling furiously scribbles the orders on a scrap of paper. Fried rice with its salty nuggets of ham, just-cooked pink shrimp, and delicately scrabbled eggs always gets a round of head-nods and an enthusiastic “definitely” from the whole family. I’m hoping that the version below gets the same unanimous stamp of approval.
Neutral oil for cooking
½ cup diced onion
1 tsp minced garlic
1 tsp. minced ginger
3/4 tsp. salt
1/3 cup diced carrots
1/3 cup diced celery
5 shiitake caps, diced
1 tsp. oyster sauce
1/3 cup cooked peas
¾ cup diced ham or Canadian bacon
10 small or 5 large (cut into 3rds) peeled and deveined shrimp
2 eggs, lightly beaten
4 cups cooked white rice *cook’s note I*
1 tsp. chicken bouillon *cook’s note II*
¼ tsp. white pepper
½ cup sliced scallion
2 tsp. sesame oil
*As with all Chinese food timing and speed are the keys to success. Make sure you have everything prepped and ready to go before you turn on the stove.
- Heat a wok or large skillet and 1 Tbsp. of oil over med-high heat. Once wisps of smoke begin to appear add the diced onion. Cook for 1 min. Add the garlic, ginger and ¼ tsp. of salt. Cook for 1 minute more.
- Add the diced carrots. Cook for 1 minute. Turn the heat to high. Add the celery and diced shiitake caps. Add 1 tsp. oyster sauce. Cook for 1 min. Add the peas, stirring through. Remove and set aside.
- In the now empty wok/skillet heat 2 tsp. of oil. Add the diced Canadian bacon or ham (I prefer Canadian bacon for its fat content). Fry quickly over high heat until lightly brown and fat begins to render. Remove. Turn the heat down to medium-high and add the shrimp to the pork fat. Add ¼ tsp. of salt. Cook for 2 minutes, or until shrimp are pink and no longer translucent. Remove shrimp, leaving any remaining fat behind.
- Turn the heat down to medium and add the lightly beaten eggs to the center of the hot wok/skillet. Cook as you would scrambled eggs for 15 seconds, add the rice to the pan. Mix well with the partially cooked eggs. Sprinkle in 1 tsp. chicken bouillon, ¼ tsp. salt and ¼ tsp. ground white pepper. Continue stir-frying for 1 minute.
- Add the cooked vegetables, pork and shrimp. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring well to evenly distribute all the ingredients. Add the scallions and sesame oil. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary.
- Remove from heat and serve.
Cook’s note I: To get the best results the rice needs to be cold. Freshly steamed rice is too sticky to fry properly. Use leftover rice or cook it early in the day and let it cool for a while in the refrigerator.
Cook’s note II: In an effort to develop a recipe as close to the version my older brother remembers from his childhood I’ve used chicken bouillon. I doubt it comes as a surprise to anyone that this is an ingredient frequently used for seasoning in Chinese food. It received a bad rap for a while due to its MSG content, but these days it’s pretty easy to find a MSG-free version.