Hmm, now that I think about it, a nine-year-old doing a two-course lunch wasn't too shabby. *immodestly and belatedly pat self on the back*
As I got older, I made fried rice only as a last resort, when I didn't have ingredients for something else or when I had leftover rice to finish up. Why? Because, try as I might, my fried rice wasn't terribly impressive even though I'd been frying rice since I was nine. Eminently edible, yes, but nothing more.
One day, I had some extremely good fried rice at Imperial Treasure, a Chinese restaurant at Marina Square. It was so good that I was inspired to work on my version. I used overnight rice; got the wok as hot as possible; didn't stinge on the oil; minced lots of garlic; threw in salted fish, prawns and even crabmeat; tried various ways of adding eggs; compared light soya sauce vs oyster sauce vs fish sauce vs salt, singly and in various combinations; spiked the rice with bird's eye chilli, then dried chilli flakes . . . . It all came to nought. I made many attempts but my fried rice sadly remained as blah as ever. I concluded that a home cook, without the powerful stove, cast iron wok and years of training of a professional chef, simply couldn't make outstanding fried rice.
My interest in fried rice lay dead and buried until last year when I came across the Nyonya way of frying rice with belachan, prawns, cucumber, and finely pounded dried prawns, dried chillies, fresh chillies, shallots, garlic and candlenuts. The first time I made Nyonya fried rice with a recipe from Cooking for the President, I was like, 'WOW! I made that?!' I couldn't believe I'd made such a delicious fried rice. Every grain of rice was fragrant and chewy, absolutely nothing like my Chinese fried rice. It was PHENOMENAL!
I made the Nyonya fried rice several times and had it cold once, which made me go 'Omm . . . mmppfff . . . gaaahh!' (That's OMG with my mouth full.) It was even nicer cold than hot. How is it possible?!
Another time, I added two eggs to the fried rice. Everything was the same as before except for those two eggs. Result: the fried rice was ruined. It wasn't fragrant and the chewy texture was lost. It was like my blah Chinese fried rice! Why do the eggs make the fried rice go from extraordinary to ordinary? I started thinking about why the Nyonya fried rice was so delicious, why adding eggs totally ruined it, why it was more delicious when it was cold, and how I could improve my Chinese fried rice.
The most common tip for making fried rice is: use day-old rice because it's fluffy and no longer sticky. Unfortunately, fluffy rice alone doesn't make good fried rice. The chewiness of the rice is equally important, and that doesn't change much once the rice is cooked.
How do you cook rice that's chewy and 'Q'? By steaming instead of boiling/simmering.
When rice is cooked in boiling water, the cell walls break down, allowing the starch inside to leak out, absorb too much water and turn soft. The change in texture is irreversible, so the rice isn't chewy even if you let it rest overnight. Hence, rice cooked by boiling, in a rice cooker or on the stove, is destined to make fried rice that's at best mediocre even if it's day-old rice.
In contrast, rice that's steamed has no direct contact with boiling water. Cooked at a lower temperature, the cell walls don't break down much, so very little starch escapes. Hence, all the grains are chewy and they don't stick together. The overnight rest, a must for boiled rice, isn't necessary for steamed rice. This fried rice, made with 15-minute-old steamed rice, is as fluffy as can be:
Temperature isn't the only important factor. The amount of water absorbed by the rice is equally crucial. If there's too much water, the rice loses its chewiness even if it's steamed. How much is too much? It depends on the type of starch found in the rice.
There're two types of rice starch: amylopectin and amylose. The latter makes rice fluffy and not sticky because it's insoluble. Basmati rice, for instance, is very fluffy because it has a high percentage of amylose. Amylopectin, on the other hand, makes rice chewy by absorbing water to form a gel. Glutinous rice is extremely chewy because it contains mostly amylopectin.
You might have come across the tip that aged, old rice is necessary for making good fried rice because it has more amylose than newly harvested rice. The tip isn't entirely correct. Rice that's too old has too much amylose and not enough amylopectin to make it chewy. It's fluffy alright but it's not 'Q', and the texture gets worse when the rice cools down because amylose hardens when it's cold. New rice, on the other hand, runs a risk of turning mushy because it has a lot of amylopectin, which becomes soft if it absorbs too much water.
The best rice – that's easy to work with, fluffy, chewy, and doesn't harden when it's cold – should have a good balance of the two types of starch. I'd call it middle-aged. (Click here to learn more about old vs new rice from Harold McGee.)
Are you still with me? And do you see why it's too simplistic to say that day-old rice is the key to good fried rice?
So, the rice is steamed to fluffy and chewy perfection, and half the battle is won. Ready to stir and fry?
To win the second half of the battle without wok hei – the smoky, charred aroma created with a professional-grade stove – ingredients are the home cook's only weaponry. Forget about mincing a few cloves of garlic. You need a heap of ingredients – an atomic bomb, in other words, not a few hand grenades – or the rice would be tasteless. But not too much either or the rice would be overwhelmed. (You want to bomb a city, not destroy the entire planet.)
The mix of ingredients must be chosen carefully so that the rice is infused with both fragrance and umaminess. Shallots, dried prawns and salted fish make a great combination. The Chinese would mince these ingredients finely but I think the Nyonya method is far superior. Pounding with a mortar and pestle achieves a very fine grind which a knife can't possibly create. Imagine each and every grain of rice coated with countless specks of shallots, dried prawns and salted fish which have been fried till brown and fragrant. The aroma and umaminess pop in your mouth even before you start chewing.
Adding chunks of meat or seafood to fried rice would be to miss the point completely. It's fried rice, not stir-fried chicken or whatever. A modest amount, cut pea-sized or flaked if it's crab, adds variety but doesn't overwhelm. Each little piece is eaten with some rice in one mouthful, which wouldn't be possible if it's cut too big.
Most people expect eggs in Chinese fried rice so into the wok they go, fried rather than raw so that the rice doesn't sit in liquid eggs and lose its chewiness. Don't forget that eggs would absorb some aroma and umaminess, so there must be sufficient dried prawns, salted fish and shallots – or whatever you fancy – to flavour not just the rice but also the eggs.
Lastly, salt and ground white pepper to taste, and lots of spring onion or maybe iceberg lettuce, and the job's done. This is a rollicking good fried rice which would score, I think, 7-8 out of 10. If there were good wok hei, it would be a perfect 10 – fried rice fit for the gods.
What you put in your fried rice is a personal choice but, please, no char siu no matter what. Cutting char siu into little bits and then stir-frying it is tantamount to abuse. The poor char siu becomes dry and tasteless, and all the work done roasting the pork is undone. Good char siu should be treated with respect and appreciated as it is. Bad char siu should be given to your dog after washing it (char siu, not dog) in lots of hot water.
But restaurants serve char siu fried rice, you might say. Yes, they do. But that's because they have dry, overnight char siu to get rid of. They can't sell stale char siu as char siu, so they chuck it in fried rice (and noodles). Some people eat char siu fried rice in restaurants, and then they think they should put char siu in their homemade fried rice. *sigh, shake head, roll eyes, all at the same time*
Let's see, have I forgotten anything? Oh yes, why is Nyonya fried rice nice even when it's cold? Because it has lots of dried prawns which become more umami after cooling down. Other seafood such as crab and fresh prawns would also have the same effect. More importantly, the fried rice doesn't harden when it's cold but that's due to the type of rice chosen rather than the Nyonya recipe.
|I've made major improvements to my fried rice in the past few months. It's not too shabby now even though I can't toss rice like the fellow in the video (0:55-1:05). Fried rice isn't my culinary last resort anymore, and I enjoy eating it. About time too 'cause I've been frying rice since I was nine.|
|DRIED PRAWN, SALTED FISH & CHICKEN FRIED RICE (虾米咸鱼鸡丁炒饭)|
(Recipe for 4 persons)
360 g long grain Jasmine white rice (I use Songhe brand)
wash and drain thoroughly; place in 18-cm round cake tin; add 320 ml water (weight of rice plus water is 720 g); let rice soak 10 minutes
50 g dried prawns
50 g salted ikan kurau (threadfin), bones and scales removed if any
100 g shallots, peel
5½ tbsp vegetable oil
2 eggs (use 1 tsp to marinate chicken)
beat with 2 tbsp milk, big dash of ground white pepper, and 1 tsp each of light soya sauce, white sesame oil and Shaoxing wine200 g deboned chicken thigh or drumstick
wash, drain and dice 1½ cm; marinate with dash of ground white pepper, and 1 tsp each of light soya sauce, Shaoxing wine, egg and white sesame oil for 15 minutes or longersalt to taste, about ¼ tsp
ground white pepper to taste, about ½ tsp
60 g spring onions
trim and wash; dice to yield 1 cup (sounds like a lot!)
Steam rice over rapidly boiling water for 15 minutes, then check whether rice needs more water. If surface layer is cooked but a bit hard, rice is ideal. Steam another 5 minutes – surface layer should now be soft but chewy – then remove rice from steamer. If surface layer is not cooked, sprinkle with 1-2 tbsp water and continue steaming for another 5 minutes. Repeat if necessary, till rice is just soft. Remove rice from steamer. If surface layer is cooked and soft, remove rice immediately (and use less water next time you steam rice).
After rice is cooked, fluff and set aside to firm up, about 20 minutes. Cover if not frying immediately.
If the rice is fried just after steaming, it's still fluffy and 'Q' but the soft grains would break into small pieces when stirred. You may skip the cooldown when hunger is more important than presentation, or if you can toss rice like a pro.
Whilst rice is cooking, rinse dried prawns, salted fish and shallots. Cut into small pieces, then blitz in mini chopper or pound till very fine. If pounding, start with salted fish, then dried prawns and finally shallots.
In a well-seasoned wok, make a thin omelette with eggs using ½ tbsp vegetable oil. When omelette is almost done, chop into small pieces with spatula. Transfer to a plate and set aside.
In the same wok, heat remaining 5 tbsp vegetable oil till almost smoking. Add salted fish, dried prawns and shallots. Fry over medium heat till brown and fragrant. Increase heat to high. Add chicken and stir through. Add rice and eggs. Stir-fry till chicken is just cooked. Taste and add salt if necessary. Stir through. Turn off heat. Sprinkle with ground white pepper and spring onions. Stir through. Plate and serve.