Fried rice, or as my sister calls it, "fried lice", is often made for lunch at my house using last night's leftover white rice. It's actually better to use day old rice, because freshly made rice is too sticky and the rice grains in fried rice are supposed to be separate. In the United States, fried rice from restaurants is usually colored brown from the addition of soy sauce, however my mother never puts soy sauce in it. It's always seasoned with salt (it should be very salty), white pepper (my mother uses predominately white pepper in her Chinese dishes), and a dash of sesame oil. If she has some, then she'll put green onion or chives in it and diced vegetarian sausages. On rare occasions it will have various leftovers added, such as bok choy or frozen peas, although I prefer her standard version. Lately I've been using minced green onions and green garlic and a few drops of Chinese vinegar along with the standard ingredients in my version. In addition, my mother also always serves it as a stand alone dish, never with a sauce. I love fried rice, but I think of it as the dish that you make with leftovers--sort of like the casseroles which were popular during and after WWII. So it has always been somewhat perplexing to me to watch Americans eat fried rice with a stir-fry instead of white rice, but I couldn't explain why. It is almost as strange as habit as putting soy sauce directly on white rice.
Recently, this dichotomy made sense to me when I read Barbara Tropp's introduction to fried rice in her cookbook The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking: Techniques & Recipes:
This is not the fried rice I ate ravenously as a kid in New Jersey--that exotic mound of dark brown stuff shaped with an ice-cream scoop and dotted with wisps of canned bean sprouts and cubes of roast pork (I thought it superb). This is real fried rice, left white, as the Chinese insist on (seasoned therefore with salt, not soy), and tossed to a fluffy mound with colorful, stir-fried bits of fresh meat and vegetables. It is altogether light and delicious, a pleasure to my adult tongue even while a blow to my childhood illusions.
Fried rice in China is usually an unassuming and deeply satisfying bowlful, a way of using up last night's rice and creating a quick, nourish snack or meal. Roadside stalls and vendors in bus stations and train depots sell fried rice as "fast food" and offer it up in the spirit of a snack. Occasionally it will appear on a restaurant menu, but it will then be brought to the table last in a succession of dishes, meat to follow and accompany the requisite plain rice and never to replace it.
My Mother's version is:
- cooking oil (My mother only uses extra virgin olive oil, regardless of whether the dish is American or Chinese. However peanut oil would be more authentic.)
- leftover white rice
- sesame oil
- salt (You need more salt than you think. The dish should be pretty salty because this is where most of the flavor comes from. You actually want to be able to taste the saltiness.)
- white pepper
- 2-3 eggs
- green onion chiffonade
- Optional ingredients: vegetarian sausages, diced ham, peas, or other leftovers
The eggs should be cooked first, when the pan is clean so that they are perfectly yellow. Crack eggs in a separate bowl and remove any stray shells. Heat a saute pan with some oil on medium heat. Scramble eggs in the pan. When the eggs are solid but still a bit moist on the outside, transfer them back to the bowl. This is so the eggs won't be overcooked. Any remaining raw egg will be completely cooked later.
If you are using sausages or other leftovers, you should dice them if necessary and reheat them now. Transfer temporarily to a plate.
Add some more oil into the pan, and saute the green onions until they are fragrant.
Add the rice. Stir-fry the rice; break up any clumps of rice. Add more oil if the rice is sticking. Season heavily with salt and white-pepper. Continue to stir-fry until the rice is hot and not to moist. Add in any sausages or other diced ingredients.
Just before serving, mix in the scrambled eggs and break up any large clumps. When the eggs are fully cooked, turn off the heat. Add a dash of sesame oil (sesame oil is a seasoning oil; it is not meant for cooking so it should always be added at the end).
Note: If you prefer your fried rice with soy sauce, you should add it just before the eggs, so that the eggs do not get discolored; soy sauce can burn so if you add it, so you should only saute the rice briefly to dry it out so that the dish isn't wet.