Thursday, November 10, 2011

Mosquitoes, souls, and fried rice

Fall was in the air, as was the gray cloud of mosquitoes following me on my hike. They whirled around above and behind me in a frantic dance as if they knew that the coming frost would soon shoot them down, but they were content to bask in my heat rather than savor a last meal. 

These tiny companions on the trail reminded me of an ancient Chinese belief: that the soul of an evil man is crushed in a mortar when he dies, and this dust then takes flight as a swarm of mosquitoes. It also was thought that the souls of men and women didn't reside in their chests or brains, but rather hovered over their heads. That is why mosquitoes always like to cluster above us like buzzing eggs, for these fractured souls are drawn to the unbroken spirits of the living.

It was a long walk, and when I reached a windy area, the insects finally left me. The sudden gust of brisk air and my fast pace led me to ponder what would ease the gnawing in my stomach. Once I flashed on the contents of my refrigerator - including a container of cold rice and some savory Chinese sausages and cured meats - I knew exactly what we would be having: fried rice flecked with mushrooms, eggs, and those delectable meats. My walk down the hill suddenly was much faster than usual.

Cold weather is the time for both making and enjoying Chinese charcuterie. It seems that every region has its own specialties, and I would be hard pressed if forced to choose between Hakka salted pork, Jiangsu's "wind chicken," Hunan's gammon, the pressed salt-water duck of Nanjing, Taiwan's fat sweet sausages, and Cantonese cured meats and sausages, to name just a few. 

Chinese raw mixed grain rice
In the Chinese-style markets around here, though, the most common offerings come from Guangdong (aka Canton). Lovely long strips of fresh bacon called larou are cured and sometimes smoked, making a slightly dry meat that responds happily to steaming. Southern Chinese sausages tend to come in two forms - sweet pork sausages (lachang, or lop chong in Cantonese) and the darker duck liver and pork sausages called yaganchang - and nowadays you will almost always find them vacuum packed.

For the rice, I turned to something new: the blended whole-grains that offer more nutrition and flavor than plain old white rice. In addition to brown rice, these might also include purple, black, and red rice, as well as wheat, barley, and a grain called "maple-leaf rice." These also are available vacuum packed, but since they are whole grain, these varieties become stale fast and so should be closed-up tightly before being stored in the fridge and then used up within a month.

What I hadn't realized was that this new mixture makes superb fried rice. The chewiness and nutty flavor both add incredible depth to the dish, and they offer enough nutrition to make me think that this big bowl of comfort food might in fact have some redeeming factors. Be sure to steam the rice, rather than boil it, in order to preserve the chewy texture; you can steam it either in an electric rice steamer or in bamboo baskets, whichever you prefer.

There is one main rule for making fried rice that cannot be broken: the rice has to be completely cold. Anyone who tells you that freshly cooked rice can be used in a pinch is setting you up for a bowl of mush. So do as the Chinese do and keep your leftover rice; this is the absolute best use for it!
Toss the rice with vigor

Fluffiness is important in fried rice, too, and the only way to do that is to use a wok, a Chinese spatula, and toss the rice continually over high heat. Break up any clumps you run across and keep that spatula moving. You will be rewarded with a beautiful pile of ethereal rice that way. Also, sprinkle a bit of liquid on the rice as you toss it; this will shoot into puffs of steam that will also help to loosen up the rice and quickly heat it through.

When I use cured meats of any kind in fried rice, I always steam them with some Shaoxing rice wine. This does three things: it flavors the meats, softens them so that they are juicy rather than extremely chewy, and forms a lovely liquid that can be poured over the fried rice as it cooks, and this spreads the flavor into each grain. Serve this for a hearty breakfast or a delicious snack. But whenever you eat it, feel free to serve it in bowls with tablespoons for carefree munching.

Cantonese fried rice with sausages and cured meats 
Guangshi lawei chaofan  廣式臘味炒飯  
Serves 4 as a snack

Meats sprinkled with Shaoxing
2 Chinese sausages
6 inches Chinese cured meat
1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine
1 or 2 large organic eggs
3 fresh Chinese black mushrooms or rehydrated flower mushrooms
3 cups cold rice, preferably mixed whole-grain rice
Filtered water as needed
4 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil, divided
Reserved juice from the steamed meats
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
Sea salt to taste
2 green onions, trimmed and finely diced
1. Place the sausages and cured meat on a heatproof place, sprinkle them with Shaoxing rice wine, and then steam them for about 15 minutes. Reserve any juices for later. Trim the skin off of the cured meat and cut the meat into half-inch cubes. Cut the sausages lengthwise into quarters and then into half-inch wide cubes.

2. Beat the eggs lightly in a small bowl and set it next to the stove. Slice the mushrooms and then cut the slices into half-inch cubes.
3. Wet one hand and lightly toss the cold rice, separating most of the clumps and grains. Wet your hand as often as needed to keep the rice from sticking while you do this.

4. Set two small clean bowls and a serving platter next to the stove. Heat the wok over medium-high until it starts to gently smoke, add a tablespoon of oil, swirl the oil around in the wok, and add the eggs. Quickly fry the eggs until barely set, roughly chop them into half-inch pieces with your spatula, and remove them to one of the small bowls.

5. Heat another tablespoon of water in the wok over high heat, add the mushrooms, and stir-fry them for a few seconds before adding 3 tablespoons water. Quickly fry the mushrooms until the water has evaporated and the mushrooms are slightly translucent. Remove the mushrooms to the other small bowl.

6. Add the rest of the oil to the wok and heat it over high along with the diced meats. Stir-fry the meats until they start to crisp, and then add the rice to the wok. Toss the rice nonstop while it cooks, sprinkling it as you fry it with the reserved juices, fish sauce, and sugar. Taste the rice and add salt and more seasoning as desired. Cook and toss the rice for at least 5 minutes, or until it is light and fluffy. When it is almost done, toss the mushrooms and eggs. Toss for another few seconds and add the green onions. Toss for about 5 seconds to incorporate the onions and serve immediately while very hot.

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