When it comes to Chinese food, I judge restaurants by their fried rice. If a kitchen can’t turn out a good fried rice, the rest of the food will be pretty lousy too.
Different people have different ways of judging a restaurant. Some Europeans will tell you that the true test of a kitchen is the quality of the stock. If that’s no good, then nothing – the soups, the sauces, the flavours etc. – will taste right.
I tend to judge Indian kitchens by the quality of the dal. Any fool can make a greasy mutton curry. But it takes skill to get a dal right. When it comes to Chinese food, I judge restaurants by their fried rice. I know this doesn’t necessarily make much sense – and Chinese chefs will probably laugh at me – but in my experience, if a kitchen can’t turn out a good Fried Rice, the rest of the food will be pretty lousy too.
But first, what is Chinese Fried Rice?
Most of us are used to the kind of Fried Rice that is served in Chinese restaurants in India. This version is distinguished by the umami taste of soya sauce (which, subliminally, for Indians, is the true taste of Chinese cuisine) and served along with the main courses.
In China, as we shall see, it tastes rather different and is served either after the main courses or as a course by itself. I tried looking for a standard Indian version of a Chinese Fried Rice recipe. While the cheaper Chinese restaurants probably use lots of tomato ketchup, I found a reasonable recipe in Arvind Saraswat’s Professional Chef. Arvind started the House of Ming in Delhi in the Seventies and his recipe is the one used by Indians who cook Chinese food at upmarket restaurants.
In Arvind’s basic recipe for Egg Fried Rice, you scramble four eggs in hot oil, add a kilo of cooked rice, season with salt, ajinomoto, pepper and soya sauce and garnish with spring onions. By Indian standards, it is actually quite a restrained recipe because it does not interfere too much with the basic flavour of the eggs.
A Thai Fried Rice, on the other hand, will have many other flavours. There are many Thai recipes but I found an interesting one in a small-circulation book by Ravadi Lekprichakul, directed at non-Thais. According to Ravadi, Thais will first sauté onion and garlic and then fry the rice. When the rice is nearly done, they will add soya sauce, fish sauce and black pepper. The egg comes last, just before the garnish of green onion.
You can argue about the authenticity of Ravadi’s recipe (she ran a Thai restaurant in Washington DC) but few of us will dispute that Thais use onion, garlic, soya and fish sauce to flavour their fried rice. Most Thai chefs I know also use chicken stock. Both recipes – Arvind’s and Ravadi’s – result in excellent Fried Rice. But here’s the point: no Chinese person would recognise their versions as being the real thing.
This was driven home to me most forcefully a few months ago in Hong Kong when we were shooting an episode on rice for my Discovery Travel and Living show. Nearly every Chinese chef we filmed was categorical: there is no soya sauce in Fried Rice. As for the Thai version, they said it was a completely different dish from an entirely different cuisine and had nothing to do with Chinese food.
I spoke to Chef Leong who runs the excellent San Qi at Bombay’s Four Seasons and asked him why the Chinese did not use soya sauce in their rice. After all, Indians cannot conceive of Fried Rice (or any kind of Chinese food, for that matter) without the flavour of soya. Leong’s view is that Cantonese cuisine (Chinese food is too vast to talk in generalisations so it is best to go region by region) specialises in clean flavours that emerge more from the ingredients themselves than from any condiment.
To demonstrate this he cooked many kinds of Fried Rice for me. The basic Egg Fried Rice, he said, got its flavour not from any condiment but from the egg itself. So he might use a tiny bit of seasoning powder but the taste had to be full of the richness of egg. So, not only did he not use soya, he also did not use any egg white at all. The eggy taste to his rice came from the yolks.
Further, he added, when he made other kinds of Fried Rice (pork, chicken, Yang Chow etc.), he did not use basic boiled rice as his staple. He first made Egg Fried Rice (with yolks) and then used it in place of boiled rice to ensure that the egg flavour was not swamped by the other ingredients. However, for certain kinds of Fried Rice, the flavour of egg yolks was too strong. One of his signature dishes at San Qi is Crab Fried Rice. This is made with previously cooked Alaskan King Crab which is added right at the end of the cooking process. But because the crab has such a delicate flavour, Leong only uses egg whites for the Fried Rice. The yolks, he says, will interfere with the taste of the crab. I asked Leong about the use of soya sauce in Fried Rice. His view seems to be that it is not part of the Cantonese tradition. But, he feels, you can use it if you are following the cooking of another region.
For instance, Leong is an Overseas Chinese from Malaysia and in the days when another Malaysian (of Tamil-Goan extraction) Andrew de Britto was his Food and Beverage Manager, the two of them would enjoy a Malaysian street food dish of Pirate Fried Rice made with a very dark and malty soya sauce.
Andrew phoned from Shanghai where he now works and asked Leong to cook Pirate Fried Rice for me. It was delicious. But no, it was not at all Cantonese or clean tasting. It had a distinct street food flavour.
There is, however, one kind of Chinese Fried Rice that nearly always uses soya sauce. It is not Cantonese either but you’ve probably come across it.
Yangzhou Chao Fan is probably the world’s most famous Fried Rice. It hails from the Huaiyang province of China. These days, nobody bothers with Huaiyang food but it has given the world one famous rice dish, named after the town of Yangzhou, 150 miles from Shanghai.
You probably know it as Yang Chow (or Yuang Chow or Yangzhou) Fried Rice but it turns up on Chinese menus all over the world. Many places call it Mixed Fried Rice, which is what it is.
I asked Leong to make me his version which consisted basically of shrimp, chicken and char siu (roast pork). His Yang Chow Rice was subtler than most versions I have encountered and it got its flavour mainly from the char siu with the shrimp and the chicken adding texture. In her book Serve The People, the American-Chinese author Jen Lin-Liu writes about going to Yangzhou to try and find the real thing. She is told by the Secretary of the Huaiyang Cuisine Association that he has trademarked an official recipe.
She never quite finds the recipe but is told that the dish must contain rice, eggs, scallops, sea-cucumber, scallions, bamboo shoots, ham and chicken stock. Her own approximation of the recipe includes garlic, onion, carrot, rice wine, sesame oil, soya sauce and salt and pepper in addition to all the other ingredients listed by the Cuisine Association.
My guess is that we’ll have to go to China to get that version. Till then, the variations turned out by such expat chefs as Leong will have to do. If you are making fried rice at home, here’s my advice: do not try the Cantonese version. You need to have a really good hand to pull that off. Eat that when you go to a good restaurant and eat it on its own as a course by itself.
For home cooks, the Thai version is the most idiot-proof. Even I know how to make that!