Monday, April 7, 2014

Heavenly fried rice from Shanghai

It’s hard to believe, but in all the time that I have written this blog I have rarely talked about fried rice. And yet, this quintessential member of just about any take-out menu seems to be one of the things that most non-Chinese order when they sit down for a Chinese meal. 

One of the big reasons why I have avoided it up to now is most likely that I let out a silent groan whenever someone gets a big plate of fried rice no matter what Chinese cuisine the restaurant offers. Beijing Muslim, Taiwanese, Chaozhou… fried rice is the fail-safe order for way too many people.

I have to admit, though, that I do love good fried rice. Many areas have their own versions, but the best come from Guangdong and the Yangtze River Delta. And when it comes to these two places, my hands-down favorites are a Cantonese one with salted fish and chicken and the Shanghainese recipe we’re looking at today.

Fry the eggs in a well of rice
To me, this is perfection in a bowl. It is so subtle and yet so satisfying that I can finish off half of this recipe with pleasure even if nothing else is on the table, and yet so refined that it could also appear at the end of a Zhejiang-style banquet.

Here are my secrets for the best fried rice:

Use only long-grain white rice. Jasmine rice is perfect because it is not too starchy and so cooks up into fluffy, individual grains. Short-grain rice mushes up easily, and brown rice is too heavy.

Cook the rice ahead of time and let it cool completely, which means at least to room temperature. This helps separate the grains even further so that you end up with very light fried rice.

Fry the rice in only a minimum of oil. This keeps the grains from getting soggy and heavy, and it also ensures that you taste the sweet flavor of the rice more than the oil.

Soft, creamy cashews
Allow the other ingredients—both solids and seasonings—to blend in fully with the rice. Because the grains are fairly bland, use strong flavors that will not be washed out in this combination. That is one reason why I like salted fish and seaweed here so much.

I also enjoy getting some toasty aromas in the rice, and so I give it a chance to brown in the oil. This Shanghainese touch makes some of the mouthfuls a bit crunchy while others are soft.

Consider doubling this recipe to make more than you immediately need because fried rice can be reheated for a quick meal later on in the week.

Gold and silver fried rice with laver seaweed and cashews
Jīnyín hǎidài yāoguŏ chǎofàn 金銀海帶腰果炒飯
Jiangsu, Zhejiang
Serves 2 as a main dish, 4 as a side

2 cups cooked, white, long-grain rice
1 cup jasmine (or other long-grain white) rice
1½ cups filtered water (or whatever your rice steamer calls for)

Fried rice:
½ cup whole, raw cashews (see Tips)
6 tablespoons fresh peanut or vegetable oil, divided
½ teaspoon sea salt
All of the cooked rice
1½ cups chopped laver seaweed (i.e., nori; see Tips)
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
Sea salt to taste
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
Add seaweed to the rice

1. If you do not have 2 cups leftover long-grain white rice, make some fresh. Those of you who do not have a steamer can easily cook it on a stove: Rinse the rice, place it in a medium saucepan, and cover it with the water. Bring the pot to a full boil, reduce the heat to low, cover the pan, and let the rice slowly simmer for 20 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let the rice steam in there for 10 minutes or more. Scrape the rice out onto thin layer on a rimmed baking pan and let it cool completely, tossing it lightly now and then to release the steam. (The rice can be made ahead of time and either refrigerated or frozen. Defrost completely before proceeding.)

2. Lightly chop the cashews until they are the size of peas. Dry-fry them in a wok by toasting them over medium heat until they start to brown on the edges and smell fantastic. Remove the nuts to a bowl.

3. Pour ¼ cup of the oil into the hot wok and swirl it around. Add the ½ teaspoon salt and all of the rice. Toss the rice over medium to medium-high heat until it starts to steam and turn golden in places. Add the laver seaweed and toss this to make the seaweed start to break apart. 

4. Make a well in the center of the rice, pour in the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil, and then add the beaten eggs to the oil. Let the eggs set for a moment, and then cook them in this well until they look curdled and are about half done. Add the nuts to the rice and toss all of these together. Taste and adjust the seasoning with a sprinkle more salt. Drizzle the sesame oil over the top, give the rice a final toss, and serve.


Use other nuts like pine nuts if you prefer. Whatever they are, they should not be hard like almonds, but rather slightly soft, which makes them fit into the rice better.
Hungry yet?

Laver seaweed, or nori, is best in Japanese or Korean grocery stores. The little individual packets are expensive, so buy the larger sheets. Chop the seaweed with kitchen shears. If you prefer, you could even pulverize these in a food processor or blender.

A little sprinkle of sea salt at the end makes a world of difference to this dish, as it adds a slight crunch and a sparkle of flavor. How much you add will depend upon the saltiness of the seaweed, as well as your palate.

Eat like the Chinese and use a big spoon instead of chopsticks. Just pile the rice into bowl and dig in. 


  1. I know fried rice gets a bad rap, but I absolutely love it for its versatility and economy. Gonna have to make some for lunch!

    1. I totally understand. Had some the other day, and now I'm hungry for it again... maybe with some of that salted fish this time!

  2. Yah, I just made some fried rice and topped it with some of the chili/black bean sauce from last week. Super good...

  3. Appreciate the post. Delicious fried rice has actually been one of the most elusive & enigmatic dishes for this novice cook. I am so amazed at how every slight variation in cooking - how hot the wok is a certain points, adding moisture-containing ingredients at different points in cooking, amount of oil, etc. - has profound effects on the outcome. One of my lifelong missions is to recreate a delectable fried rice served at a tiny restaurant near my college in North Carolina. They used no soy sauce, and yet there was this mysterious savory flavor to their shrimp fried rice I can't duplicate.

    Sigh, even the 'brown sauce' versions I've made with soy sauce are passable, but not up to the best I've tasted at some other mom-and-pop shops. I'll keep trying though!

    1. Thanks so much, Brian! If that restaurant is Cantonese, I'd bet that they put shrimp paste in their fried rice.

      You can find little jars of this lavender-gray paste in most Chinese grocery stores. Lee Kum Kee is a reliable brand, and you just need to stash it in the fridge after opening it, where it will keep forever. To use it, first fry a bit in oil; loosen it up until the paste is fairly liquid, and then mix in the cold rice. Toss toss toss, until the paste is evenly distributed.

      You don't need a whole lot. Depending upon your palate, I'd start out with a teaspoon per cup of rice and go from there. If the flavor is not strong enough when the rice is done, empty out your wok into a large bowl and start again with some shrimp paste fried in a bit more oil, add the fried rice, and toss well. Just remember to always fry the shrimp paste in oil before using it.

      Adding bay shrimp to this version of fried rice is classic because the little guys are sweet rather than fishy, but the shrimp sauce is decidedly funky and ties everything together with a taste of the sea.

    2. Carolyn,

      Oh my goodness! I was watching Iron Chef Japan maybe two months ago and saw one of the guest chefs add shrimp sauce to his fried rice. I figured 'hmph, this is probably just some chef in Japan that got creative on his own' - I never imagined there was precedent for it in China. I will try it out and let you know how it turns out. Thanks for taking the time to suggest this.


    3. Heh. Sounds like that chef knew what he was doing!

  4. I started reading your blog a while back and think it's one of the best Chinese food blogs online! With fried rice I always make the rice fresh, plus I make it a bit on the drier side. I find this makes a big difference in finishing with a lighter texture.

  5. We plan when we are going to have rice with something to have fried rice the next day. We cook much more than we need and dry it overnight (uncovered) in the fridge. Fried rice is an amazing meal when it is cooked well and yours looks really scrumptious. Cheers for the share Carolyn :)