Before I get onto the subject of fried rice, let’s take a detour to the swirling sands (or at least the rice pots) of Persia.
When my wife and I were first dating, in the early years of the Holocene epoch, we were often invited to dinner with a friend of hers whose father, an accomplished home cook, came from Iran. He made lavish multicourse meals, and we fought over the last bites of his creamy chicken and especially his tadig.
Tadig is the crust that forms at the bottom of Persian rice pilaf. The rice itself may be made with any number of fragrant additions, but it’s this golden crust that everyone is after. In Iran, I assume, the person who finishes off the tadig is like the greedy soul who gobbles the last slice of pizza.
Every culture that eats a lot of rice likes to fry or sear it until it becomes golden and crisp and addictive like potato chips. In Japan, it’s called okoge. Korea has dolsot bibimbap, or rice with vegetables and meat served in a stone bowl so hot that it crisps the rice right in front of you. China offers sizzling rice soup and guoba. Italians make fried risotto balls. And so on.
The trouble with most of these dishes (the risotto balls excepted) is that you don’t get enough crispy rice. It forms part of the dish, and then it’s gone, and then you get sad and start thinking about the ephemerality of happiness.
Then, the other day, I took myself out to lunch at a Laotian restaurant and ordered the nhem mou, which the menu described as “mixture of rice, coconut meat, and eggs deep fried.” I didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out to be crispy rice heaven.
The mixture was formed into balls and fried, then crumbled and mixed with peanuts and ham. I realize this sounds like a bizarre Thailand-Virginia hybrid, but with lettuce leaves for wrapping, it was a totally satisfying dish. For once, I had all the crispy rice I could eat.
Nhem mou, however, is not the sort of dish I could see making often at home. There’s the ball-forming, the frying, the crumbling. I’d do it once as an experiment and move on to something else. And the restaurant was miles from home.
Then I realized, hey, wait a minute: nhem mou resembles nothing so much as fried rice. It’s a different path to the same goal of smoky, crusty grains of rice in every bite. This forced me into a painful admission (ah, the ephemerality of happiness): I had almost never made good fried rice.
With the exception of kimchi fried rice, which tastes good because it has bacon and kimchi in it, my fried rice has always been missing something. I’ve put in all sorts of seasonings and sauces — tasty stuff like fresh ginger and fish sauce — but it’s never quite right.
For guidance, I consulted John Thorne’s essay “Wok Fragrant,” which is found in his book Mouth Wide Open. According to Thorne, I was completely missing the point. When fried rice isn’t good, it’s because it’s not fried enough. It doesn’t have wok hei, a phrase that Grace Young lyrically translated into the title of her book The Breath of a Wok. I’m quick to jump on stir-fries for lacking this quality, but I was committing the same sin of omission in my own fried rice.
Fortunately, writes Thorne:
Because cooked rice is light and particulate, it doesn’t cool down a hot wok the way heavier, wetter ingredients can. This means it can be sear-fried pretty quickly, even when made on a home range.
Thorne is too kind to point out that many cookbooks get this wrong, treating fried rice as nothing more than a reheated, flavored rice dish, cooked for one or two minutes in a fairly hot pan. This is like steaming a steak. But using high heat, the proper rice, and sufficient cooking time, I produced a smoky delight, flecked with crispy brown bits. I not only summoned the breath of a wok; by modifying the recipe just a bit, I performed a resurrection.
Years ago, I used to eat at a Japanese lunch counter in Seattle called Takohachi, known for its whimsical octopus sign and its gutsy food. I always ordered salt-broiled mackerel and bacon fried rice. Takohachi closed in 2007, and I haven’t found anyone else in town serving bacon fried rice. (Does this seem odd to anyone else?)
John Thorne puts slivers of Chinese sausage (lop cheong) in his fried rice. I love lop cheong, but I wondered what would happen if I replaced it with partially-cooked bacon and let it finish cooking while I browned the rice. Bingo: the octopus lives!
Reach for some leftover rice, crank the burner up, and you’ll be in crispy-rice heaven before you know it.
Matthew Amster-Burton writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle.
Related recipe: Bacon Fried Rice
Matthew Amster-Burton sniffs out the unexplained in the kitchen, the store, and the food world at large. He blogs at Roots and Grubs, podcasts at Spilled Milk, and is the author of the book Hungry Monkey.
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