It is the dish that traditionally winds up a Cantonese banquet--a last burst of brilliant flavor to enchant guests already satiated with glorious flavors. In Chinese homes, it turns into a thrifty catchall for leftovers.
It is fried rice, both the pinnacle of Chinese cuisine and the poor man's staple.
No one in Asia wastes food, least of all rice, the staff of life. Even the crust clinging to the bottom of the pot is used.With day-old rice and the remnants of last night's dinner, a gifted cook can produce a noteworthy new dish.
In a proper Chinese meal, steamed rice is the backdrop for meat, seafood and vegetable dishes. Fried rice is so rich that the cook can get by with fewer accompaniments. That saves work and expense. Put in enough meat and vegetables, and fried rice can be the main dish. That saves even more work. Furthermore, it is easy to prepare--and fast too.
As Chinese migrated south, they taught other rice-eating peoples about fried rice. In Indonesia, this dish is so esteemed that a gastronomic conference once debated just how it should be prepared. Invite an Indonesian to eat in a restaurant, and what will he or she order? Probably fried rice, which is not only delicious but also a safe choice from an unfamiliar menu.
Add seasonings like \o7 terasi\f7 (shrimp paste), \o7 kecap manis\f7 (sweetened soy sauce) and chiles for local flavor and the name changes to \o7 nasi goreng--nasi \f7 meaning rice and \o7 goreng\f7 , fried. Indonesians make the dish a full meal by garnishing the plate with a couple of sticks of \o7 sate\f7 , perhaps some chicken, cucumber relish and \o7 krupuk\f7 , which are puffy chips made of shrimp paste.
Once, for fun, I rated \o7 nasi gorengs \f7 during a vacation in Java and Bali. The winner turned up in the coffee shop of the Ambarrukmo Palace hotel in Yogyakarta, Java. The rice itself was deliciously spicy, and the accompaniments were first-rate. They included two skewers of sate in a dark, sweet sauce, a fried egg sprinkled with crisp fried shallots, a sweet red chile \o7 sambal \f7 (a thick hot sauce), \o7 krupuk\f7 , cucumber and tomato slices and \o7 acar\f7 , a sweet-sour relish of tiny raw shallots, carrots, cucumbers and lots of small green chiles. What won me over were the shreds of sweetened beef as fine as floss that were scattered over the rice.
For unrestrained inventiveness, though, it is impossible to top the Thais. What gets into their fried rice is amazing. We're not talking shrimp and vegetables here but lychees, pineapple, raisins, chestnuts, cashews, lotus seeds, taro, preserved olives, dried shrimp, dried beef and fermented pork.
The Thais are geniuses at combining wildly divergent ingredients, so these odd combinations work. They are also experts at presentation. Sometimes they package fried rice as if it were a gift, wrapped in an omelet that is slit at the top to reveal the contents. They even turn fried rice into sushi, rolling it up in layers of dried seaweed and egg pancake. The slices look like eggy California rolls.
They also make something called American fried rice--a dish you would never find in America. The rice contains raisins and ketchup and comes with a chicken drumstick, sausage and a fried egg.
One theory holds that this dish was designed to please American servicemen on leave in Thailand. Or it may have appeared during the reign of King Rama V (1853-1910), who maintained a Western kitchen and imported Western ingredients. This royal theory is favored by Nidda Hongwiwat, managing director of Sangdad Publishing, a Bangkok company that specializes in cookbooks.
Sangdad has issued what may be the only Asian cookbook devoted exclusively to fried rice. The title is "Khao Pad" (\o7 khao\f7 , rice; \o7 pad\f7 , stir-fried). Unfortunately, it is in Thai only. However, Sangdad has prepared a cookbook in English and Thai on the same topic.
I had always scorned American fried rice but finally ordered it at a coffee shop in Bangkok called Tom's Quik. What I thought would be terrible turned out to be a fine lunch. Tom's rice, rosy with ketchup and faintly spicy, contained raisins, green peas and wiener slices. It wore a fried egg like a hat and was surrounded by a sizzling hot, freshly fried chicken drumstick, a square of ham, a sausage and slices of cucumber and tomato. Asians view Americans as heavy protein consumers, which explains the meaty accompaniments.
The Cantonese are more restrained. Mostly they do standard variations like shrimp fried rice or chicken fried rice. But not at the Sea Empress Seafood Restaurant in Gardena. There you'll find a rice as fanciful as anything the Thais might concoct.
Called Pataya seafood fried rice, it contains curry powder, coconut milk and peanut sauce along with scallops, shrimp, fish and squid. Partners Jimmy P.Y. Chiu and Alvin Y. Leung, both Cantonese, dreamed this one up and named it after a beach resort not far from Bangkok.
Leung, the restaurant chef, and Chiu offer these tips on making fried rice: