Perfect fried rice in a frying pan - even on an electric range or hotplate

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Fried rice, or cha-han (チャーハン) as it's called in Japan (a word imported from Chinese), is one of my comfort foods. (It's also called yakimeshi 焼き飯, depending on where you grew up and so on.) There are variations of fried rice throughout Asia, and a light colored, Cantonese-influenced version (probably introduced by Chinese immigrants who settled around the port cities of Yokohama and Kobe) is a standby of Japanese home cooking. It's a very frugal dish, since it's quick to make and is a great way to use up leftover vegetables and meat. My idea of perfect fried rice has to have separate grains, each coated with a bit of oil and flavoring - but never too greasy, enhanced by bits of vegetables and/or meat or shrimp and fluffy yellow egg throughout.

Fried rice is best made in a red hot wok on a strong gas flame, but I haven't been able to do that for a while unless I'm visiting someone else's kitchen. Gas cooking ranges are almost unheard of in Swiss home kitchens, so I've had to use a ceramic top electric range for years. Woks really do not work on electric cooking ranges. (I don't even consider those standalone plug-in electric woks - what's the point of a wok you can't move around anyway? Besides, they take up an awful lot of space to store.) I am hoping to install a gas range, or at least a mixed-heat source range, in the kitchen that should eventually get built here in this new old house, but at the moment I am stuck with that lousy hotplate that I keep complaining about.

It's still possible to make great fried rice with a weak heat source and no wok though. The procedure for making fried rice with a frying pan at home differs quite a bit from the "proper" method using a wok. Once you master it though, you can make fried rice anywhere - even on a hotplate.

The instructions here are geared towards people with electric and/or weak cooking heat sources. If you have a gas range, you can still use these instructions by using medium to medium-high heat. You'll have a bit of extra time to work, which may be easier if you're not used to making fried rice or if you don't have a wok.

Recipe: Fried rice made in a frying pan

For 1 to 2 portions

  • 1 to 1 1/2 cups cooked plain rice
  • 1 cup chopped green onion
  • 1 cup chopped vegetables of your choice (see notes below)
  • 1/2 to 1 cup chopped roast pork or ham
  • 2 medium eggs
  • salt
  • pepper (white pepper is more traditional here, but black pepper is fine)
  • 2 tsp. to 1 Tbsp. soy sauce
  • cooking oil
  • optional: sesame oil

Equipment needed: A large frying pan (at least 28cm / 11" in diameter), spatula

Before you start cooking fried rice, you need to have everything ready to go. First, the aromatic vegetables - the vegetables that add lots of flavor and umami to your food. Here I have kept it simple and just used green onion (about 1 stalk), chopped up. You could also use regular onion, a little fresh ginger and/or chopped garlic. If you want spicy fried rice, use a little chopped hot red chili pepper, or dried chili pepper flakes or powder.

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Next are the non-aromatic vegetables. I like to add at least a cup's worth per 1- 1 1/2 cups of cooked rice. You can use any vegetables you like that are not too watery. Here I have used sweet bell pepper and zucchini.

I also use some chopped precooked meat, which adds to the flavor - about 1/2 a cup's worth per 1 to 1 1/2 cups of rice. Roast pork is nice, as are tiny whole shrimps or chopped shrimp, chicken, turkey - anything you have. I've used some leftover roast ham here.

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Eggs are a must-have in fried rice for me. Two medium or small eggs or 1 large to extra-large egg is enough. Beat it lightly with a pinch of salt added.

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You'll need some precooked rice of course. 1 to 1.5 cups will serve 1 person (or 2 people with small appetites) as the main dish of a meal. Leftover plain rice is great for fried rice, but make sure it's hot or at least warm, not ice cold straight out of the fridge, which will cool down the pan and make the rice go greasy. The easiest way to warm it up is to pop it in the microwave for a minute or two. If you don't have a microwave, pour some boiling water over the rice and then drain it off very well before using.

Japanese rice (which I always seem to have some leftovers of, stashed in the freezer) does tend to clump up a bit, but is fine for fried rice. Chinese takeout rice is great for making fried rice from. If you are cooking rice fresh expressly for the purpose of making fried rice, use a little less water than you might normally do, to have cooked through but firm and separate grains.

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Finally, some seasonings and things: oil for cooking, salt, pepper and soy sauce. You could add other things here but let's keep it simple.

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Once all the components are ready, it's time to start cooking. The cooking will go quite fast! Heat up the large frying pan - over high heat if you are using an electric heat source, medium to medium-high if you're using gas. (If you have a very high heat output induction cooker, adjust the heat accordingly; the food should cook fast but not burn as soon as you add it to the pan!) Spread a little bit of oil on the bottom of the pan. The pan is hot enough when you drizzle a little bit of the beaten egg in it and it cooks right away, like this.

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Pour in the beaten egg and spread it around the bottom of the pan, as if you were making an omelette.

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Break up the egg rapidly to make scrambled eggs.

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When the eggs are nearly set but a bit runny, take them out of the pan, clean off the pan if needed with the end of your spatula or a wadded up paper towel, and add a little fresh oil. Put the pan back on the heat and add the non-aromatic vegetables and cut up meat. Let cook for a couple of minutes, stirring gently. You do not need to toss it around in the air as you see professional chefs doing on TV - they have much stronger cooking heat than you do. Let your punier heat source work for you.

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Add the green onion and/or other aromatic vegetables you're using. Stir around a couple more minutes, using the whole surface of the pan. Season with a sprinkle of salt and pepper. It should smell very good now.

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Add the warm rice and spread it thinly over the bottom of the pan. Break up any clumps with the end of the spatula. When the rice is sizzling on the bottom, stir it up - but let the heat of the pan do it s work before you stir like crazy. If the rice gets stuck to the pan a bit, scrape it off as you go along. (I prefer not to add more oil at this point, since it makes the rice greasy.)

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Re-add the scrambled egg and stir.

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Clear a space on the bottom of the pan. Pour the soy sauce directly on that hot spot on the pan - it will sizzle. Immediately mix the soy sauce into the rice. This method ensures that the soy sauce flavor gets distributed more evenly instead of getting absorbed by the rice grains in one spot, and also adds a bit of toasty flavor to the whole thing.

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Taste, and season with pepper and additional salt if needed. If you prefer, you can add a few drops of sesame oil at this point. Serve immediately while piping hot. (Cold fried rice is fine, but hot fried rice is much, much better.)

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So to sum up, here are the key points to making fried rice in a frying pan:

  • The most important rule: Do not overcrowd the pan! That is the sure way to make sticky, greasy fried rice. For a large 11 to 12 inch (28-30cm) frying pan 3 cups of rice worth of fried rice is probably the maximum you can do successfully at one time.
  • Have everything cut up and ready to go before you start cooking.
  • Warm up the rice before using it. Don't use ice cold rice.
  • If using an electric heat source, use the highest setting you can achieve. If using gas, use medium-high heat.
  • Make sure your frying pan is hot, and that you use the entire bottom surface of the pan.
  • Cook the eggs first, then take them out of the pan, to have soft eggs rather than hard little egg-bullets.
  • Cook the vegetables and meat/shrimp through and season before adding the rice.
  • If the rice gets a bit stuck to the pan, just scrape it off; adding more oil to the rice will make it greasy.
  • "Sizzle" the soy sauce on the bare surface of the frying pan, rather than pouring soy sauce onto the rice.

Variations

You can vary fried rice by using different aromatic vegetables, different protein, and so on. As I said above, fried rice is a great way to use up leftovers! Here are some ideas:

  • Use about 2 tablespoons of finely chopped fresh ginger instead of the green onion.
  • Finely slice 2-3 cloves of garlic, and fry them until soft. Remove the garlic and cook the rice in the garlic-scented oil. Add the garlic back at the end.
  • Use finely chopped white onion and sauté it in butter instead of oil. Omit the soy sauce and just season with salt and pepper. Add some grated Parmesan cheese and dry oregano at the end.
  • Precooked, finely diced bamboo shoots, water chestnuts or lotus root (renkon) are great crunchy additions to fried rice. Diced shiitake mushrooms add plenty of flavor - sauté them well before adding the rice.
  • Finely chopped kimchi is an interesting, spicy addition.
  • A very Japanese addition is natto. The sliminess dissipates when it's stir fried.
  • Near the end of the cooking process, add a handful of dried bonito flakes (katsuobushi).
  • Use tiny dried shrimp (hoshi ebi 干しえび or sakura ebi 桜えび)instead of or in addition to meat or shrimp.

My father's fried rice

A number of people sent me the link to this video of a Tokyo Gas commercial featuring a mother making bentos. It's a very heartwarming commercial (okay...maybe rather manipulative). It's part of a series of commercials by Tokyo Gas, which is a public utility as you might have guessed, emphasizing the importance of food and cooking have in bringing families together. My favorite in the series is probably this one, which is about a daughter reminiscing about the fried rice her father used to make for her.

Her father only made his daughter fried rice when his wife (her mother) was away - in the hospital, or if she'd had a fight with her husband and gone back to her parents' home for a while. Every time he would ask his daughter "Does it taste good?" The daughter would never be able to reply properly - until the very last time, when she asks her father to make some fried rice shortly before her wedding, when presumably she will be leaving the family home to set up her own household.

It reminded me of the very few times my father cooked for us when we were growing up. I can barely count the number of times he stood in the kitchen; typical of men of his generation, he regarded cooking as woman's work, though he loved to eat. One of those very few times was when my mother was in the hospital to give birth to my youngest sister. My father made some fried rice for my other sister and me. It was way too salty, but I ate as much as I could stand to just because of the sheer novelty of having something cooked by my father.

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