Comrades, the time has come. We must rid this world of weak fried rice. I've waited patiently my entire life for this wok hero, acknowledging that there are other rice frying superstars more capable of leading the masses to the promised land. Yet no one has raised their fist. So consider this post me... fisting.
Harnessing the collective wisdom of my ancestors, I have drafted the first-ever manifesto on the science and art of the ubiquitous dish that no one seems to know how to make properly. Actually, it's just the wisdom of my dad, but he made the best fried rice that ever graced this earth. Maybe it's because it's one of only two things he knew how to make (the other was steamed buns, and sadly, I never learned the recipe). If the elders summon me to a death match because I taught the Gwai Lo our secrets, well, then you can call me Bruce Lee. Actually, you can call me that whenever. I dig it.
The ideology of fried rice is simple. It's rice mixed with a bunch of stuff. Really, that's it. A kid could make conceptual fried rice at the dinner table with a bowl of rice and dinner. There's no real measurement needed, no set cook times, no thickeners, no binders, no anything you have to learn in your elite culinary school. But revolutionary fried rice? Now there's an elusive beast. Revolutionary fried rice cascades out of your bowl, every grain of rice perfectly seared on all sides, as separate and individual as snowflakes, yet united in the spirit of cooperation and partnership for the greater benefit of the masses as a complex, yet consistent interplay of infused flavors imparted by a perfect ratio of meat, eggs, fats and vegetables. Revolutionary fried rice doesn't rest in a recipe. It is the manifestation of technique, timing and proportion. It is the peoples' will. It's kung-fu with food. And grasshopper, you're about to get schooled proper.
Revolutionary fried rice's best friend is heat. Lots of heat. When I make it, I use a 65,000 BTU outdoor burner (the best indoor ranges max out at about 18,000 BTUs). Neighborhood kids who use too much Axe body spray burst into flames when I am making fried rice.
[Wokferno pics stolen from this photo set from '09. I did not re-shave my head. No children were singed that night.]
Without the proper searing of several of the main elements of fried rice, you end up with a bowl of mushy glutinous gruel, unworthy of even labor camp. The heat ensures that all the ingredients pop with flavor. It also keeps things from sticking together because you are building a great caremelized crust around each individual element. Like the Great Wall, this crust keeps the riff raff out. So crank up your flame as high as it will go. No monster burner required. I used to cook fried rice on my dinky apartment range. You just use a smaller wok/pan and work in small batches.
If at all possible, you want to use a wok. The shape of the wok is not only conducive to harnessing the available heat into a concentrated spot (while providing a "rest and drip zone" for cooked items on the outer perimeter), it also makes it a lot easier to keep the ingredients in constant motion. More on that later. You can use a regular pan if you don't have a wok, but it'll be harder to move all the stuff around, and you'll lose a lot of rice over the sides because constant motion requires speed, and speed makes rice fly around. Like a good cast iron skillet, a wok gets better with age, as it becomes seasoned with each use. The easiest wok to season is the cheap carbon steel variety. A Teflon wok is the most pointless thing ever invented. If you have one, throw it away. Just do it now. Teflon cookware is not designed for high heat. A wok's mission in life is to partner with high heat. If you want to spend your money on pointless, oxymoronic products, go buy yourself a Lincoln Mark LT luxury pickup truck. But go get yourself a decent wok. The cheaper the better.
ESTABLISH A MISE EN PLACE LINE UP ALL YOUR S#%*
The thing with fried rice is once you start, you're committed to the end. There is no such thing as stopping in the middle. There are no time outs in fried rice. You can't answer the phone, go to the bathroom, sneeze, chit chat, and you especially cannot stop and prep ingredients. Why? Because once you stop moving, you either get clumpy, or burned elements. A good sear is a thing of honor. A burn means I want to send you off to Siberia to dig for iron ore. Lining all your ingredients up also means you don't ever have to stop and think "what's next?" To make revolutionary fried rice, you must be a cold, unthinking, tireless machine, from the moment the flame ignites to the moment you transfer the colorful cascading masterpiece onto the serving platter. When I make fried rice, the only thought going through my head is "kill Sarah Connor."
Fried rice is like jazz. There are so many angles of attack, and the improvizational opportunities are virtually endless. But as free-form as it seems, there are still established rules to follow. Come to think if it, it's actually like English. Most of it makes sense, but there's no rhyme or reason to the exceptions. You just have to know them by instinct. I would like to save you from the misery of failure. Here are some of my cardinal rules of fried rice ingredients.
The following three ingredients are essential. They are not to be altered or substituted in any way. Doing so will bring shame to your clan for several generations.
Egg: Essential. Don't argue this. Your average batch of fried rice requires between 2-5 eggs. My personal rule: use two more than you think you need.
Scallion: Otherwise known as green onion, this is another essential defining ingredient. If you don't have scallion on hand, just walk away. No fried rice for you today. Your average batch of fried rice requires one bunch, chopped, but just the green parts. Discard the white base stems. They are too pungent for fried rice.
Rice: Whenever possible, do not use fresh rice. Use rice that has been sitting in the fridge for 1-3 days. You want it to be somewhat dried out. If you cannot wait, and have to use fresh rice, just go to Panda Express and buy steamed rice. They seem to have perfected the art of moist, yet fairly unclumpy rice. If I can shamelessly walk into a Panda Express and order steamed rice with my head held high, you can too. Your average batch of fried rice will be about 3 bowls of rice, or one big Chinese take-out container (those boxy paper ones).
The following ingredients are the variables you can throw into your fried rice.
Ham: diced into small squares.
Pork: ideally, you want to use Chinese BBQ pork, but if you don't live somewhere it is readily available (many Chinese markets and restaurants sell this by the pound), then leftover pork chops, tenderloin etc. work fine. You want to dice this as well.
Beef: I am of the opinion that beef just doesn't go well with fried rice (unless it is in sausage form). Beef is my favorite meat, but it simply does not work here. If you must use beef, diced up steak is the way to go. It won't be that good, however.
Fish: You don't ever want to use fish in fried rice in any premeditated manner. I only use it when I have leftovers I want to re-purpose. If you use fish, make sure it is flaked into tiny pieces and properly fried so that all the moisture is gone and each piece has a nice sear to it. Salmon works best.
Sausage: Chinese sausage is the gold standard for fried rice. Kind of like a sweet pepperoni, Chinese sausage lacks moisture, and has a sweet sherry flavor to it. Hands down the best ingredient for fried rice. Dice it up. I used to think you could only get this at Chinese markets, but I recently saw Chinese sausage at Costco, which gives me hope for the people. Although you will never see this at restaurants, Kielbasa or even hot dogs chopped into tiny pieces makes for excellent fried rice. I bet you Spam would pretty much rule, too. Don't hate. I never said fried rice was elite cuisine.
Bacon: the only person who ever did this was my dad. And it is still the best fried rice I ever had. He would chop the bacon into small pieces and fry it so that it was cooked but not crispy. Then he'd use it for a batch of fried rice. Man, I could eat that all day. And oftentimes, I did.
Chicken/Turkey: one of my favorite meals is the post-Thanksgiving fried rice that I make. Take any cooked poultry and chop it up, skin included. It fries up so good with rice. Screw your Turkey a la King.
Shrimp: flash fry peeled shrimp separately before adding to fried rice, and you have a great complement. Shrimp tends to cook soggy if you don't defrost, dry thoroughly and use high heat and lots of oil. Do all three, and your ancestors will be proud.
Peas: I'm not big on vegetables in my fried rice, but peas are a good compromise. They add color, and they don't leach into the rest of the ingredients. Use cooked, drained peas.
Carrots: I don't dig on carrots at all, in any form. But in small cubes, they add color and texture. And I will begrudgingly allow you do add them. Just use the frozen ones that come with peas. Sigh.
Iceburg Lettuce: this is the thing that makes everyone do a double-take. Iceburg lettuce is actually quite popular in China as a cooked vegetable. I know. Gross. But when you shred it and throw some some into your fried rice right before you add the rice, it just works. You just have to take this on faith.
Don't ever let me catch you adding any of the following to your fried rice. Ever.
Onions: I love onions, and I add them to everything. But they ruin fried rice. Too much flavor intensity, and just a horrible texture pairing with properly seared rice. There is one exception to this: Japanese fried rice. Japanese fried rice has finely chopped onions, ultra finely chopped carrots, sesame butter and egg. And in that configuration only, it is quite irresistable.
Bean Sprouts: It's so easy to throw beansprouts in any stir fry and call it Chinese. I can live with that. But when I see a bean sprout in my fried rice, I drag it into the street and curb stomp it. They taste horrible and they ruin the aesthetic of everything being roughly the same size.
Garlic: Like onions, I love garlic and will gladly put it in anything. But like onions, they overpower fried rice and should not be allowed anywhere near it. The exception here is Filipino Garlic Fried Rice. For that, you just brown chopped garlic in a wok, add rice, and fry it. So good. It works because garlic is the only ingredient.
Soy Sauce, in excess: Some people like to finish their fried rice with soy sauce and a bit of butter. I will let it go for now, but this manifesto takes the official position that it detracts from the fried rice because you are adding moisture, as well as darkening the entire dish. Moisture is the enemy. And dark fried rice just takes me back to horrible Chinese restuarants from the 70's and 80's that existed to dupe Americans into thinking that Chinese people add flourescent red sauce and pineapples to everything, and eat salty, dark, tasteless fried rice. With bean sprouts. That's all soy sauce's fault. But if you must, I will grandfather that in. And I do it sometimes, as well, but only to add a teensy bit of flavor. Soy sauce is not a coloring agent! Your salt balance should come from the eggs, the meat and salt to taste at the end.
Ginger: Ordinarily, I would not even list this ingredient. It would be like stating that you should never add maple syrup to fried rice. However, this past weekend, I happened to dine at a very popular Bay Area Chinese restaurant owned by a famous chef from China. He put ginger in his fried rice and I took my disdain public via Twitter. I don't care if this ignites an internet war with established chefs. He is dead wrong. Ginger in fried rice is an abomination. I don't care how many heads of state you have cooked for. Maybe you'd still cook for them if you didn't serve them fried rice with ginger in it.
Any vegetable not listed above: You want vegetables? Make a salad.
Tofu: Ninja, please.
Remember, this all happens in one fluid motion. No pauses, no hesitation. An important key to epic fried rice is the order in which these steps occur, so stay with the program.
1) Heat your wok until it smokes.
2) Add enough oil (canola or vegetable oil) so that when you add beaten egg to it, the egg will kind of float in the oil.
3) Add the beaten egg. Let it sit in the oil for a few seconds and get puffy. Add a generous amount of salt, more so than you would if you were going to eat it as an omlette. At that point it will be brown in spots. That's perfect. Flip it, break it up and stir it around. When it's about 80% cooked, remove the egg and place it back in the bowl it came from (you actually want it to swim in the remnants of raw egg from the bowl).
4) Now add your chopped meat. Do not add more oil. You want the fat from the meat to render out. That is where the flavor that melds onto the rice resides.
5) When the pieces of meat all have a nice sear, add your vegetables, if any (except for scallions). Let them get all coated with the oil/fat. You don't have to sear them, but make sure they get a good coating of oil.
6) All the while, make sure everything is in constant, even violent, motion. I have learned to love that metal-on-metal scraping sound that tells you "you're doing it right." Bonus points for sparks.
7) Add the scallions and get even more violent with the agitating of ingredients. You want it mixed real well. Once they are seared and shiny, but not limp, add the rice. This is a critical step. Too undercooked, and the scallion will be too pungent. Too overcooked, and the scallion will shrivel and pretty much disappear.
8) Now add your rice. Once it's in the wok, break it up as quickly as possible. Your goal is threefold: separate all the grains, get every piece seared, and pump as much air into the collective rice as possible. To do this, you've got to press the clump of rice into the pan with the back of your spatula. If your rice is dry enough, this will separate all the grains. If your rice is too wet, it will begin to get sticky and glutinous. That is the death of any fried rice. If you reach that stage, then it's game over, no coin return. Go back to Panda Express and get a double order of Orange Chicken with their lame ass fried rice that's at least better than the travesty of Chinese cuisine wallowing in your wok.
9) If your rice is dry enough and it separates, then scoop it constantly to get as much air into the mixture as possible. Air replaces moisture. Air is your friend. Moisture is the enemy. Keep it moving. Always keep it moving. Fast and furious. Like this picture. No camera lens should be able to capture your spatula. Be the blur.
10) Once you've gotten the rice properly separated and seared, you are now ready to add the egg back in. Dump the egg back in the wok and immediately lower the heat. You are done cooking. Your goal now is to break up the egg and integrate the pieces into the fried rice. The residual heat will cook the rest of the egg to perfect.
11) Salt to taste. If you insist, you can finish it with a little bit of soy sauce and butter. While it tastes ok, it just kills any semblance of authenticy, and I will cry a little for you. You may have noticed soy sauce in my ingredient picture above. That was for the Japanese fried rice I made that day, along with the Chinese fried rice. Soy sauce and butter finishes Japanese fried rice quite nicely.
12) Enjoy the adoration of the people.
I know there's more to my lifetime of fried rice experience that I have left out, and I could probably write a book on this subject alone. So, feel free to ask me anything fried rice related in the comments below and I will answer them within the comments.
Now go forth and sear for the people!