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November 5, 2004

How to make great fried rice

One of the most common questions I get as a chef is about making good fried rice. This usually puzzles me because "fried rice" in Asian food is hardly haute cuisine. In fact, it's the very opposite of it. Fried rice is not one single dish. It is more of a way of combining leftover rice with leftover anything else and turning it into a one-dish meal. 

This "leftover" philosophy of fried rice also means that there are an infinite range of ingredients and flavours that can be combined to create new and interesting versions of fried rice. From the simple egg fried rice to the Indonesian Nasi Goreng (which translates to "fried rice", incidentally) to the Thai Basil-flavoured Rice, you can make any number of tasty dishes that will fill your belly.

As I wrote earlier, fried rice is more of a formula than a single recipe. So rather than list actual ingredients and give you a recipe, I'll explain a few basic things you need to get right to make sure your fried rice comes out great. (But don't worry, a recipe too shall follow.)

Rice: This is obvious, of course. You need to start with boiled or steamed white rice. Ah, but you can't make fried rice with freshly cooked rice. The best rice to use is leftover rice that's been lying in the fridge for at least a day. This will turn the grains firm and get rid of the excess moisture. They will also be much easier to separate. If you cook with freshly-made rice, all you will get is "fried mush" instead of fried rice. If you can't wait a day, at least let the rice cool for a few hours in an airy spot.

A hot wok: One of the reasons that restaurant-made fried rice has that smoky flavour is the high temperatures and the seasoned carbon steel woks that we use. Once you get stirring the rice around, keeping a low temperature won't help much. The soy sauce (if you're using any) will make the rice wet instead of caramelising and the rice too will not get heated all the way through. Moreover, as I wrote in my article Hot Wok, Cold Oil, a layer of oil on a hot surface will dance around merrily and form a non-stick coating. If the wok is not hot enough, your rice grains will start sticking everywhere. You don't want that, do you?

Leftovers of some sort: Fried rice isn't Hollandaise Sauce. It doesn't need precise measurements and careful cooking. It tastes great with all kinds of leftover meats and veggies. Some grilled chicken from yesterday? A few scraps of ham or bacon from breakfast? Or perhaps some leftover peas and carrots in your fridge? All of them will work fine. The only criteria is that they should not be too "wet". For instance, you probably shouldn't combine that vegetable stir-fry with yellow bean sauce with your rice or your green curry chicken because then you will get a wet mush again. Combine leftovers and rice with some spirited seasonings like ginger, garlic, spring onions and salt and presto! your fried rice is only about 5 minutes away. 

When I was writing this article, I wondered which of my fried rice recipes to share with you. There were just so many. So I decided to do a Thai fried rice with lots of flavour that works wonderfully as a single-dish meal too. Here's what it looks like when it's done:

Thai Basil fried rice (Khao Pad Kaprao)

Thai Basil fried rice (Khao Pad Kaprao)

And here's how to make it:

What you need

Cold, cooked long grain rice - 2 cups

Garlic - minced - 1-2 tbsp (I like to use more)

Fresh red chillies - finely chopped - 1-3 tsp (adjust to your taste, really)

Red, green, and yellow peppers mixed - 1/2 inch squares - 3/4 cup

Onion - 1/2 inch squares - 2 tbsp

Fish sauce or light soy sauce - 2 tbsp (adjust according to saltiness of sauce)

White sugar - 2 pinches

White pepper - 1 tsp (use 1/2 tsp black pepper if you don't have this)

Fresh shrimp, shelled and deveined - 50 gm (optional)

Peanut oil - 2 tbsp

Holy basil (or sweet basil) leaves - torn by hand - 1 handful

(Feel free to add more veggies or different meats to this dish as you see fit. It's very flexible.)

How to make it

Get all the ingredients ready. It shouldn't take too long. I predict about 10 minutes.

Heat a wok till the surface is almost smoking. Then add the oil and spread it around till it coats the surface evenly.

Temporarily move the wok off the heat and the add the garlic and chillies, then stir for about 10 seconds. This is to prevent the garlic and chilli from burning. Then add the peppers, onion, and shrimp, move the wok back to the high heat, add two pinches each of salt and pepper and toss around for another 30 seconds. The shrimp should be a little undercooked because it will continue to cook after the rice has been added.

Now add the rice to the pan, crumbling any big sticky blocks with your hands to ensure they're all separate.

Toss the rice and the veggies well and keep stirring for another minute or two so that the rice grains are properly coated with the oil. Then add the sugar, white pepper, and fish or light soy sauce. Stir the mixture around again for another minute. Then taste the rice to check saltiness. If it's less, add some more fish sauce.

OK, we're down to the final stage of the cooking, my friend. This is when you throw in the basil leaves into the rice and something magical happens. All of a sudden, the aroma of the basil comes floating out of the wok, turning simple ingredients into a delicious dish. Stir the rice and basil mixture in the wok for another minute, then take it off the heat and serve. That's all there is to it.

Chef's notes

You need a large wok or pan for this. Trust me, won't you? You need to have lots of extra space in it. If you try to stir-fry the dish in a small wok, you will spread the rice everywhere. Everywhere, I tell you! It will go over the side, jump on to your clothes, and you will have to be so careful that it will not be worth the effort.

Remember what I told you about the cold rice? Well, just remember it, eh?

If your next question is how to make perfect steamed rice, rest assured that my next article will tackle just that.

If you're wondering where the dark colour comes from in fried rice served at cheap-ass Chinese joints, it's from dark soy sauce.

If you're a wimp, reduce the chilli but please don't cut it out completely.

If you add other veggies to the dish, make sure they get enough time to cook before adding the rice.