Rice, vegetables and pork are the three core ingredients of Chinese cooking. As is the case with many food plants, scientists are not sure when and where rice was first cultivated, but they do agree that it happened in southeast Asia between 8,000 and 13,000 years ago. The oldest records are from China and show that rice has been an important food there for thousands of years.
Fried rice also has a long history. Reay Tannahill in Food in History notes that a recipe from Li-Chi, a book of ritual from the Han dynasty (200 B.C. to 220 A.D.), contains eight recipes to be made for senior citizens. One of them is for rice fried with crisp pieces of fat from a wolf’s breast, a dish prepared to honor old people.
Even 2,000 years ago, fat from a wolf’s breast was almost certainly a delicacy reserved for special occasions and personages. Pork, however, was already a common meat in China 4,000 years ago, and Chinese cooks probably have been combining leftover rice with meat and vegetables to make a tasty and economical dish for at least a couple thousand years.
More than fifty years have passed since I first tasted fried rice. My mother made rice pudding and she served us her version of chop suey over rice, but as far as I remember, she never tried to fry leftover rice. Instead, she would add it to soup or heat it with milk and sugar to make a breakfast dish. It was sometime during the winter of 1961/62 at the University of Wisconsin that a girl in one of my classes suggested that we eat Chinese when I asked her out to dinner.
She was from Milwaukee and familiar with the three major advantages of Chinese restaurants for students. The food is tasty, servings are generous and prices are reasonable. Fried rice is one way that Chinese restaurants maintain those advantages today. Rice is inexpensive, especially when it offers a way to use leftover white rice, and a few finely chopped vegetables provide color, flavor and texture.
There are thousands of recipes for fried rice from plain to elaborate. The simplest use only rice, some cooking oil and seasonings. The more elaborate add ingredients ranging from costly, like steak and black truffles, to inexpensive like pork and common vegetables. Having a limited budget, we opt for the inexpensive. Believe me, it still tastes darn good.
3 T vegetable oil, divided
1 small boneless pork chop, 6 to 8 ounces
Dashes of salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup chopped scallions plus one or two for garnish
1 rib celery
1 medium carrot
1/2 cup fresh or frozen green peas
1 large egg
2 cups day-old cooked rice
1 clove garlic or 1/8 tsp. garlic powder
1/2 tsp. minced fresh ginger or 1/8 tsp. ground ginger
1 T soy sauce
Have all the ingredients ready to combine in a wok or large non-stick skillet before starting. Begin by taking an egg and the rice from the refrigerator and letting them warm a bit.
Cut the pork chop into thin slices about an inch long and set them aside in a small bowl. Clean and chop three or four scallions into a quarter inch dice and put them into a mixing bowl. Clean a rib of celery and the carrot. Chop the celery into half-inch pieces and the carrot into eighth-inch slices or half-round slices and add them to the scallions along with a half cup of fresh or frozen green peas. If you are using fresh ginger and garlic, mince about a half teaspoon of each and set them aside in a small bowl.
Heat two tablespoons of oil in a wok or large non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add the pork and stir fry it for about three minutes, seasoning it with a little salt and pepper. Add the carrot, peas, celery and scallions and continue cooking until the pork is done, another four or five minutes. Remove the meat and vegetables to a bowl and return the skillet to medium heat.
Heat another tablespoon of oil. Using a wooden spoon or fork, beat the egg until it is lemon colored, then scramble it vigorously in the skillet until it is completely set and in small pieces. Reduce the heat to low and add the rice, soy sauce, garlic, and ginger. Stir gently, fluffing the rice and breaking up any clumps for about a minute. If the rice sticks to the skillet, add a little more oil. Return the meat and vegetables to the skillet and cook until everything is heated through, four to five minutes.
Serve with a green salad for a lunch or light dinner. Pass the soy sauce.
NOTES: You really need day-old or even two-day-old rice to make good fried rice. White or brown rice work work equally well, but you should use long-grain rice. We almost always have leftover rice when we have Pork and Broccoli or Jalapeño Beef Stir Fry, but you can cook some rice a day or two in advance and store it in the refrigerator. Though I cannot speak from experience, I understand that freshly cooked rice makes mushy fried rice.
Be careful not to use too much oil, and never add water. If you want to be fancy, chop a scallion into thin rings and sprinkle a few over each serving as a garnish.