Monday, September 19, 2016

Deep-fried rice batons

To be honest, I haven’t a clue as to why something this simple and elegant and delicious is such a secret. It is just steamed rice cut into batons and fried. That’s it. But it’s also so much more, like mochi on steroids, and it’s something that I easily could (and do) dream about at night.

But when my friend Dianne Jacob mentioned this lovely way with rice to me recently, there was a happy look in her eye as she recalled the exact same dish her mother used to make for her. The daughter of Iraqi Jews, her parents and grandparents had lived in the free port of Shanghai before and after World War II. What Casablanca was to the West, Shanghai was to the East: a place where refugees and those who just wanted a bit of peace in their lives sought as a new home as they settled down and tried to achieve a touch normalcy.
Good rice is fresh rice

Dianne's mother obviously loved Shanghai because she wore Chinese clothes the rest of her life while dining on kosher Chinese. And you really can't blame her for finding joy and comfort in a dish like this, for it's one of those ingenious little things that make complete sense once you try them. Why we don't deep-fry rice on a regular basis is anybody's guess. 

You see, the outside is crunchy and hot, while the inside is creamy and faintly sweet. Dust these with a bit of sugar and a few sesame seeds or crushed peanuts for your morning treat. Doughnuts will never again look as good.

Actually, I could eat these all day.

Deep-fried rice batons
Zīfàn’gāo 粢飯糕
Shanghai and Jiangsu
Serves 8
Cut into batons

2 cups / 400 g sticky rice (brown or white), or use half white jasmine rice and half white short-grain sticky rice
3 cups / 700 ml water
Spray oil
2 cups / 470 ml peanut or vegetable oil (use ok if it smells fresh)
White sugar, optional
Toasted sesame seeds or ground peanuts, optional

1. Rinse the rice in a sieve under running water, drain, and place them in a saucepan. Add the water, bring the saucepan to a full boil, cover, and simmer it on low for about 20 minutes, or until all of the water has been absorbed. Turn off the heat and let the pan sit for around 10 minutes so that the rice can continue to steam. (If you have a rice cooker, follow the manufacturer’s directions for making 6 cups cooked rice.)

2. Spray an 8-inch / 20 cm square pan with oil. Pat the warm rice into the pan, even it out, and press down lightly on it so that the rice sticks together without any air pockets. Cover the pan and chill overnight.

3. The next day, empty the pan out onto a cutting board. Slice the rice crosswise in half and then lengthwise into 16 even batons. Have a plate ready covered with tempura or parchment paper; paper towels will stick.

Fry on both sides
4. Pour the oil into a skillet and place it over high heat. When a chopstick inserted in the oil becomes covered with bubbles, add as many of the batons as will loosely fit (or as many as you plan to immediately eat – whichever is less). Lower the heat to maintain a gentle bubbling around the batons, and carefully flip them over when the bottoms are a golden brown. When both sides have browned, remove to the paper-covered plate to drain. (You can make these as crisp or not as you like - little kids and older people will probably thank you for keeping these on the soft side, but I love these when they crunch and then weld to my molars. As always, to each his/her/its own.) Serve the batons hot with a sprinkle of sugar and some toasted sesame seeds, if you like.

Tips

This recipe can be changed up a million ways to fit your appetite and menu. Consider adding finely chopped ham, ground sea moss or laver seaweed (nori), toasted sesame seeds, minced green onions… whatever appeals to you.

Fragrant brown sticky rice
The rice used here is also a suggestion. Brown sticky rice is perhaps my favorite, since it has a subtly nutty texture and flavor, although I also really like the combination of the sticky rice with jasmine, as the texture remains light thanks to the jasmine rice, but tacky enough to hold together well due to the sticky rice. 

You can vary these as you like, of course, and add or substitute different rices (think Thai black rice and brown sticky rice for starters), with other grains like millet tossed in for variety.

One thing to watch out for is the freshness of the rice. The smell of stale rice will become achingly apparent, since this is all about the perfume and flavor and texture of the rice. Nothing else. Take a big whiff of the rice when you open the bag - it should smell sweet and delicious.


2 comments:

  1. OH! I found it! After a long search, here's an article from Hawaii about it and it mentions the Hakka calling it 'mi chang'! For a while I thought I was hallucinating, because apart from my hometown, no one else in the world calls it by that name...

    http://archives.starbulletin.com/2004/01/21/features/index.html

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    Replies
    1. That's wonderful! Love the interconnectedness of China's cuisines... such a delicious web.

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