Most of the time when we order out Chinese, the first thing I do (after sneaking a bite of lo mien – can’t help myself) is take a close look at the extra soy sauce packets littering the bottom of the take-out bag. The sad reality is that at a fair number of Chinese restaurants, this isn’t even soy sauce but a “complementary” salty caramel-colored liquid. Seriously. Not a hint of fermented soy anywhere in that pack. Read the ingredients the next time…if it doesn’t have soybeans (and, for most Chinese and Japanese brand soy sauces, wheat or another grain as well) among the first two or three ingredients, all you’re really getting is pre-packaged brown salty water. Toss those babies in the garbage and grab your own bottle of good-quality soy sauce instead.
In my mind, there is another frequent soy sauce transgression that is too often tolerated and which I’d like to set about changing. The American palate — mine included — loves that salty umami flavor. So much so that soy sauce gets added in copious amounts to Americanized versions of Chinese dishes where it isn’t needed and wasn’t traditionally used.
Take, for instance, fried rice. If you’re making your own — and once you do, you’ll realize just how easy it is — you’ll need a good recipe. Until recently nearly every one I came across used soy sauce in some way…either in an oyster sauce/soy sauce “dressing,” or as a base into which other flavors like ginger and garlic are mixed before being added to the rice. They all seemed pretty good until I tried the “real” fried rice in the late Barbara Tropp’s cookbook, The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking, which gets its cleaner, lighter flavor from regular old salt and Chinese rice wine or sherry.
I’ve since read in a number of places that no real Chinese cook would use soy sauce in a traditional fried rice, though I’m pretty sure there are a number out there — in China, no less — who probably do. But, if you really want to give your taste buds a treat with a dish that actually tastes like the sum of its ingredients and NOT the salty goo you find at the bottom of an empty take-out container…try the recipe I’m about to share.
We based this on Barbara’s “Real Fried Rice” recipes — she has three variations in her book — but took some generous liberties with ingredients to suite ours’ and our daughters’ palates and to use the ingredients we had on hand. Fried rice, after all, originated as a way to make good use of leftovers and anything that may have gone to waste. On the plus side, many of the veggies in this dish came from our farm share and traveled less than 10 miles to get to our kitchen. We also used chicken left over from our Grilled Soy-Ginger-Garlic Drumsticks, so I guess, in a way, some soy sauce did sneak in to this recipe after all. You can use just about any leftover cooked meat instead (pork, beef, etc.), or throw in a handful of small, peeled raw shrimp that will cook with the rice toward the end, or even omit the meat all together for a vegetarian feast. Leave out the egg as well and it’s vegan. See, economical AND good for us, which are two things with which take-out Chinese just can’t compete.
There are several additional points you need to know in order to prepare a fried rice that would make any Chinese grandmother — or grandfather — proud: 1) use day-old leftover rice…or at the very least, make your rice early in the day and let it cool, uncovered, to room temperature before using it in this recipe, 2) cook your ingredients in the same pan but in batches, moving those you’ve finished cooking to a clean plate off the heat before moving on to the next ingredient, and 3) don’t add too much oil at any point during the frying process and make sure the oil is hot and shimmering before adding any ingredient.
Another great tip: have all your veggies prepped in a mise en place (fancy French term for, roughly, “all cut and lined up in little bowls, ready to go”). My French could use some work, I know, but you definitely want to do this — the frying takes nearly no time once you start and you don’t want to stop and cut up the next vegetable in the middle of it all.
So my advice is, save your soy sauce for a recipe in which it’s really needed and give this version of real fried rice a try. It’s incredibly easy, healthier than take-out, and I’m pretty sure you’ll be a convert. And hey, if you like a little soy sauce with your fried rice, try sprinkling some on at the table. It’s not forbidden, just not necessary!
“Real” Fried Rice with Chicken, Broccoli and Eggplant
2 cups long-grain rice, preferably an Asian variety, cooked and cooled, uncovered, to room temperature or refrigerated overnight (this should end up being between 5 and 6 cups of cooked, cooled rice)
1 medium eggplant, peeled and cubed into 1 inch squares
1 medium head of broccoli, including tender parts of the stem, trimmed into bite-size pieces
2 stalks of celery, thinly sliced
2 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
1 bell pepper, sliced into thin strips
1 garlic clove, minced
2 scallions, white and light green parts thinly sliced
1 egg, beaten
2 cups leftover cooked chicken, shredded into bite-size pieces (we used the meat from 6 soy/ginger/garlic drumsticks, but you can use whatever you have available, or omit the meat entirely)
4 1/2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
3 tablespoons dry (seco) sherry or Chinese cooking wine
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Salt the eggplant cubes and allow to drain for 30 minutes before patting dry and spreading out on a baking sheet lined with foil (non-stick foil if you have it). Roast eggplant for 30 – 45 minutes until tender. Remove from oven and set aside.
Heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium high heat in a 12-inch non-stick skillet or wok. Begin by sautéing the celery and carrots until softened. Remove vegetables from the skillet onto a clean plate, wipe skillet clean and return the skillet to the stove top. Add 1 more tablespoon oil. When shimmering, sauté the bell pepper, broccoli, and garlic until crisp-tender. Remove vegetables from the skillet onto the plate with the celery and carrots. Wipe the skillet clean and return to heat. Add 1/2 tablespoon oil and quickly cook the beaten egg, swirling the pan and using an extra set of wooden chopsticks to continually move the puffed up cooked egg from the bottom of the pan to create large “curds.” Do not allow the egg to become too dry or browned. Remove the egg as soon as it’s cooked from the skillet onto the plate with the vegetables.
Wipe the skillet clean one more time and return to heat. Add the last 2 tablespoon oil and bring to medium-high heat. Add the rice and sauté until grains begin to separate. Turn down the heat if rice grains begin to scorch. If rice is sticking, add a bit more oil from the side of the pan. Once rice grains are nicely coated and sizzling, add the sherry to the pan (it should sizzle and begin to evaporate) and mix well. Add the salt and mix again. Add the leftover chicken, the scallion, and then the reserved vegetables including the eggplant and the egg (broken into smaller pieces), stirring well to evenly distribute all the ingredients.
Correct for seasoning, adding more salt if needed, and serve immediately.
Serves: 6 – 8, depending on whether you serve it as a main dish or generous side.
Parent rating: Four stars. This is a dish we come back to again and again because it just makes sense and it can be different every time we make it. It’s a great way to use up leftovers though we often make it just because. Because we have a lot of fresh produce on hand. Because we’re craving Chinese and want something better for us than take out. Just because.
Kid rating: Three stars. Daughter 1 and daughter 2 both love rice. And carrots. And broccoli (well…one out of two isn’t bad). Celery, bell peppers, scallions…not so much. And eggplant is a bit of a deal-breaker. So when I serve this I find myself picking through and plating only the approved veggies for them. Which, though time-consuming, works pretty well until an errant scallion is spotted. Still, I appreciate that they do eat fried rice, trying different tastes along the way if prompted. You could leave out anything your family won’t eat, or consider adding ingredients like mushrooms, peas, edamame, etc., to make your own version of this satisfying dish. Don’t overload it too much though. You want a balance of rice and veg to make this a truly satisfying dish.
A final little note: if you’re looking for the cubes of eggplant in the photos and don’t see any, well, that’s because I kept our eggplant off to the side for fear of turning dinner into a “hunt for the eggplant” exercise. My husband and I had some with ours, but the girls did not, and it’s their version I ended up photographing. I still suggest you add it in when cooking unless your kiddos, like mine, might stage a meal-time mutiny if they find it on their plate.