How to Make GOOD Fried Rice

Friday, 2 March 2012


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 to cook rice that's chewy? By steaming, so that the rice doesn't directly sit in boiling water.

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. Too much water would make 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 chewy, 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.)

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, add salt and ground white pepper to taste, and lots of spring onion or maybe iceberg lettuce, and the job's done. Easy peasy.

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 wine
200 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 longer
salt 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.

15-Minute Flower Crab Dry Curry

Sunday, 26 February 2012


If you like crab but can't stomach the idea of being a crab killer, flower crab would be right up your alley. The blue crustaceans are mostly sold dead; live ones caught by local kelongs are available only once in a blue, blue moon, when you're extremely lucky. Or maybe unlucky if you're not into buying food that's still moving.

Kuih Seri Muka/Kueh Salat (I)

Friday, 17 February 2012


The custard layer of my kueh salat (aka kuih seri muka) is a pale avocado green. That's because it's made with (a lot of) pandan leaves. Do you know how the bibiks of yesteryears get a brighter green, naturally? They used dark green leaves called daun pandan serani/suji, which look like pandan leaves but are smaller and darker.

XO Cognac Fried Chicken Wings

Monday, 13 February 2012

I have a friend who knows a thing or two about food. He doesn't cook but he's a discerning eater. If he says a restaurant is good, then it's either very good or at least above average. His restaurant recommendations never disappoint me, and I have total trust in his opinion.

One day, this friend of mine asked me to bring him some bak chang made by his mother. He was living in New York at the time, and I was going to visit him for a couple of days.

Smuggle some comfort food to the other side of the planet for a dear old friend? No problemo.

I hopped along to his mother's place, and Aunty gave me six bak chang to hand-carry to her son, plus another six as reward for the bak chang mule.

Kueh Lapis (九层糕)

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Kueh lapis, take one: So there I was, poking the first layer of my nine-layer kueh lapis with a pair of chopsticks.  

Yup, it's cooked!

At this point, other people would proceed with steaming the second layer, but not me.  

Teochew Ngoh Hiang

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

I can never get enough of ngoh hiang, the deep-fried meat rolls that are full of the fragrance of five-spice powder and yam, the sweetness of prawns and pork, and the crunch of water chestnuts.

The salty beancurd skin wrapped around the filling adds to the aroma. More importantly, it stops moisture from escaping, keeping the meat roll moist and juicy.

Mmmmm . . . .

Crispy Bean Steamed Cod (豆酥鱈魚)

Monday, 28 November 2011

This is steamed cod served with a topping made with hot bean paste, crispy beans (豆酥), garlic and spring onions. The fish is moist and oily. The topping is crisp and fragrant.
This is a ball of crispy beans, aka 豆酥, the main ingredient in the topping. The taste is a bit like natto.
The ball has to be broken up and pounded into coarse bits.  

This is the video that shows how to steam the fish and make the topping.
Ladies and gentlemen, good luck. . . .  . . .  . . .  . .  . . . . .

CRISPY BEAN STEAMED COD (豆酥鱈魚)
Source: Adapted from 阿基師
(Recipe for 4 persons)

800 g black cod cut 3-cm thick, rinse, debone and slice into 8 equal size pieces
any white fish such as threadfin, sea bass or red snapper would do too
½ tsp salt
2 tsp white rice wine
1 sprig spring onion, wash, trim and cut 5 cm long
4 slices ginger
4 tbsp 辣豆瓣醬 (hot bean paste)
5 tbsp vegetable oil
45 g 豆酥, pound/grind into coarse 1-2 mm bits
1 tbsp vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, peel and mince very finely
1 sprig spring onion, wash, trim and cut ½ cm long

Preheat plate by steaming over rapidly boiling water for 3 minutes. Sprinkle salt and rice wine on fish. Mix thoroughly. Spread ginger and spring onion on plate. Place fish on ginger and spring onion. Cover and steam over medium-low heat till just cooked, 7-10 minutes.

Check that fish is totally opaque inside by flaking thickest part with chopsticks. Remove from heat. Discard ginger and spring onion. Baste fish with liquid in the plate.

Whilst fish is steaming, stir-fry hot bean paste in 5 tbsp oil over low heat till fragrant. Strain oil onto crispy beans. Mix well. Set aside till fish is cooked. Keep drained hot bean paste for other dishes, such as 麻婆豆腐 or 回锅肉. 

Wipe pan/wok with paper towels. Heat 1 tbsp vegetable oil till moderately warm. Add crispy beans, minus excess oil (which may be used as for drained hot bean paste). Stir-fry over low heat till colour changes slightly, removing bubbles if any. Add garlic. Stir-fry till mixture is lightly golden. Taste and add some drained hot bean paste if too bland, or pinch of sugar if too salty. Turn off heat. Add spring onion and stir through. As residual heat dissipates, beans and garlic should turn just golden brown.

Spread mixture evenly on steamed fish. Serve immediately with rice.