Monday, March 6, 2017

Yangzhou fried rice done right

To many Chinese, this is the ne plus ultra of fried rice dishes. And I’d have to agree that Yangzhou's favorite rice dish really is a classic.  

Like pasta carbonara or a good ham and egg sandwich, the moving parts here make complete sense and are open to endless variation. In other words, try as you might, it’s really hard to mess this one up. But some folks seem determined to do just that. 

The problem, as always, with places that put Yangzhou Fried Rice – sometimes calling it something instead like Yangchow Fried Rice – on the menu is that the magic often isn’t there. It’s just fried rice with some scrambled eggs, bits of sweet roast pork, maybe a dash of soy sauce, a sprinkle of green onions. Standard fare, nothing too exciting.

Traditionalists in Jiangsu go to the opposite extreme, though, and pack way too much stuff in there, or at least that's my take on it. In an attempt to make this as luxurious and as memorable as possible, these folks decorate a simple masterpiece with way too many ornaments, with dried scallops, duck gizzards, bamboo shoots, black mushrooms, sea cucumbers, fresh pork, and chicken all fighting with each other in a bowl. What you end up with is the kitchen sink of fried rice dishes. Definitely not my style, either.

A home run
But when this dish is done right, it sparkles. As far as I’m concerned, if you really make this a perfect Yangzhou-style dish, stick with the basics: start with excellent long-grain rice, coat the cooked grains with fresh eggs so that each one has a golden jacket, season it with a bit of good country-style ham, and stud it with small langoustines or baby shrimp.  Other than a dash of salt, a bit of oil, and a dusting of chopped green onions, those are your ingredients, and you really don’t need anything else.

So let’s talk about the rice, since that should be the star of this show. Long-grain rice, as always, is perfect for fried rice because it’s not bulky, yet it possesses enough character to stand up to being cooked twice without breaking down. Softer rice – and especially sticky rice or overcooked rice of any kind – will gum up your wok, stick to your spatula, and refuse to play right, so get the right grain and then cook it correctly.

Hom Mali jasmine rice
Go to a busy health food store and head for the bulk bins, locate the long-grain rice, and start smelling them. What you want is something that has a fresh, sweet aroma, for these grains need to be able to hold their own against the other wonderful ingredients in this dish. I like especially jasmine rice here, and will happily play around with whatever smells particularly good that day. For this recipe I used Hom Mali Jasmine from Thailand, but use whatever looks (and smells) especially good to you.

Now, that bulk bin will probably have cooking directions on it, so write them down if you like. But the basic recipe is 1 part rice to 1½ parts water, and that’s it. No oil, no salt. You don’t even have to soak it. Just rinse the rice in a sieve, cover it with the right amount of water, bring it to a full boil, reduce the heat to the lowest possible, cover the pan, and cook it for 17 to 20 minutes. Check the rice to ensure it’s done, and then keep it covered for another 10 minutes to give the steam a chance to make each grain blossom fully. Then, let the rice come to room temperature and refrigerate it. 

Chilling the cooked grains is absolutely essential to achieving great fried rice, because it cuts down on the starchiness and allows the grains to maintain a sort of integrity and chewiness. And then, just before you start to fry the rice, you will want to wet your fingers and break that ball of rice up to make it as lump-free as possible.

Now you’re ready to start cooking.
Breakfast, lunch, or dinner
And if you're wondering what to do with those two extra egg whites, stay tuned for next week's recipe...

Yangzhou fried rice
Yángzhōu dàn chăofàn 揚州蛋炒飯
Serves 4 as a main dish, 8 as a side

About 4 cups cooked, cooled long-grain rice (see headnotes and Tips)
2 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
Around 20 (4 ounces / 100 g) shelled langoustine tails or small shrimp, fresh or frozen and defrosted (size around 80/100), raw or cooked (see Tips)
Around 2 ounces (50 g) country-style ham or Hunan-style cured pork (see Tips)
4 tablespoons (60 ml) fresh peanut or vegetable oil
Around 1 teaspoon sea salt, preferably something flaky like Maldon (see Tips)
2 green onions, green leaves only, chopped into circles

1. If you haven’t done so already, cook the rice the day before you want to make this dish and chill it. Dump the rice into a large work bowl and use your wet fingertips to break up the lumps as much as possible. Lightly beat the eggs and yolks together and then toss them with the rice to coat each grain. These eggs, by the way, will also help get rid of any determined chunks of rice.

Egg mixed into the rice
2. Prep the shrimp or langoustines by removing any sandy veins and shells. Rinse them and pat them dry. Cut the ham into  inch (3 mm) cubes, more or less.

3. Set your wok over medium-high heat, and when it’s hot, add the oil and swirl it around the inside of the wok. First fry the langoustines or shrimp until they are barely cooked through (see Tips); use a slotted spoon to remove them to a small work bowl. Then, toss the ham in the oil until it is lightly browned before adding it to the shrimp. Drain any of the nicely seasoned oil back into the wok.

4. Now fry the rice: Take the wok off of the heat and let it cool down for about 2 minutes before adding all of the egg and rice mixture to the wok. Quickly toss the rice and eggs together away from the fire to gently glue the egg to the grains – starting them out on a relatively cool wok is the secret to this sort of golden egg fried rice, as the rice will then have the chance to get acquainted with the oil and gentle heat without turning into clumps of rice and eggs. Once the oil and rice and eggs have combined well, return the wok to medium-high heat and toss them continually with a wok spatula until the rice is hot; as you toss the rice, lift the spatula up and shake it so that it stays light and not clumpy. Add the shellfish, ham, and green onions, as well as salt to taste, and toss well. Serve hot.


You can use more or less cooked rice here without really affecting the dish. That being said, if you want to feed more people, and are serving this with other dishes, a cup more rice will be fine. But as a main course, don't stretch this out too far.

Buy only shrimp that are both wild and responsibly harvested. Slavery is still a problem with some shrimpers, especially in Southeast Asia, and farmed shrimp may not be the healthiest option, so do your homework and be careful. If you only can get ahold of cooked shrimp, that's fine - just be sure not to heat them for too long, as they will toughen, so merely try to get rid of the chill.

Chinese style ham
Many Chinese grocery stores will offer country-style hams, which means that it is not brined, but rather cured with salt and then pressed. This ham is generally sold as whole legs or in more easy to handle slices. Look for the smallest bone, the most meat, and no mold. A more Chinese-y flavored country ham is starting to appear in the markets around here, too (see the picture to the right). Made in the States, it's actually not bad at all when used as a seasoning, as in this recipe.

I like to use Maldon salt here because it’s added to the fried rice at the very last moment, which allows it to retain its lovely character. This way you get to enjoy little sparks of salt when you eat, and it’s a terrific touch. The amount of salt you add will depend upon a number of factors: the saltiness of the ham, what you’re serving the rice with, and whether it’s going to just be eaten on its own.

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