Grain of Truth Getting down to basics: In cultures influenced by China, fried rice, prepared with meat and vegetables, is both haute cuisine and basic fare.

January 03, 1996|By Barbara Hansen | Barbara Hansen,Los Angeles Times

It is the dish that traditionally winds up a Cantonese banquet a last burst of brilliant flavor to enchant guests already satiated with glorious flavors. In Chinese homes, it turns into a thrifty catchall for leftovers.

It is fried rice, both the pinnacle of Chinese cuisine and the poor man's staple.

No one in Asia wastes food, least of all rice, the staff of life. Even the crust clinging to the bottom of the pot is used. With day-old rice and the remnants of last night's dinner, a gifted cook can produce a noteworthy new dish.

In a proper Chinese meal, steamed rice is the backdrop for meat, seafood and vegetable dishes. Fried rice is so rich that the cook can get by with fewer accompaniments. That saves work and expense. Put in enough meat and vegetables, and fried rice can be the main dish. That saves even more work. Furthermore, it is easy to prepare and fast too.

As Chinese migrated south, they taught other rice-eating peoples about fried rice. In Indonesia, this dish is so esteemed that a gastronomic conference once debated just how it should be prepared. Invite an Indonesian to eat in a restaurant, and what will he or she order? Probably fried rice, which is not only delicious but also a safe choice from an unfamiliar menu.

Add seasonings like "terasi" (shrimp paste), "kecap manis" (sweetened soy sauce) and chiles for local flavor and the name changes to "nasi goreng" nasi meaning rice and goreng, fried. Indonesians make the dish a full meal by garnishing the plate with a couple of sticks of "sate," perhaps some chicken, cucumber relish and "krupuk," which are puffy chips made of shrimp paste.

For unrestrained inventiveness, though, it is impossible to top the Thais. What gets into their fried rice is amazing. We're not talking shrimp and vegetables here but lychees, pineapple, raisins, chestnuts, cashews, lotus seeds, taro, preserved olives, dried shrimp, dried beef and fermented pork.

The Thais are geniuses at combining wildly divergent ingredients, so these odd combinations work.

They also make something called American fried rice a dish you would never find in America. The rice contains raisins and ketchup and comes with a chicken drumstick, sausage and a fried egg.

One theory holds that this dish was designed to please American servicemen on leave in Thailand. Or it may have appeared during the reign of King Rama V (1853-1910), who maintained a Western kitchen and imported Western ingredients. This royal theory is favored by Nidda Hongwiwat, managing director of Sangdad Publishing, a Bangkok company that specializes in cookbooks.

Sangdad has issued what may be the only Asian cookbook devoted exclusively to fried rice. The title is "Khao Pad" ("khao," rice; "pad," stir-fried). Unfortunately, it is in Thai only. However, Sangdad has prepared a cookbook in English and Thai on the same topic.

The Cantonese are more restrained. Mostly they do standard variations like shrimp fried rice or chicken fried rice. But not at the Sea Empress Seafood Restaurant in Gardena, Calif. You'll find a rice as fanciful as anything the Thais might concoct at this Southern California restaurant.

Called Pataya seafood fried rice, it contains curry powder, coconut milk and peanut sauce along with scallops, shrimp, fish and squid. Partners Jimmy P.Y. Chiu and Alvin Y. Leung, both Cantonese, dreamed this one up and named it after a beach resort not far from Bangkok.

Here are some enchanting fried rice dishes:

Khao pad pak kana (Spicy fried rice with Chinese broccoli)

Makes 2 servings

3 stalks Chinese broccoli

2 teaspoons oil

1/4 small onion, sliced thin

1 very small clove garlic, chopped, optional

6 medium shrimp, peeled and cleaned

1 egg, beaten

1 1/2 to 2 cups cooked and cooled jasmine rice ( 2/3 cup raw rice)

1 or 2 serrano chilies, quartered lengthwise, or halved if small, optional

1 tablespoon fish sauce

1 teaspoon soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon sugar

Separate broccoli into stems and leaves and cut stems into 1 1/2 -inch pieces. Cut larger leaves into smaller pieces. Heat oil in wok. Add onion and garlic and stir. Add shrimp and cook until shrimp is done and onion is crisp-tender. Add egg and stir until cooked. Add broccoli, steamed rice, chilies, fish sauce, soy sauce and sugar. Stir-fry until ingredients are mixed and rice is hot, about 5 minutes. Turn out onto serving plate.

Each serving contains about 493 calories; 546 mg sodium; 138 mg cholesterol; 9 g fat; 85 g carbohydrates; 19 g protein; 2.08 g fiber.

This version of American Fried Rice comes from the cookbook "Khao Pad" (Fried Rice), published in Bangkok:

Khao pad American (American fried rice)

Makes 1 serving

1 chicken drumstick

salt

freshly ground black pepper

oil for deep frying

1/4 cup butter

1 egg

2 to 3 small frankfurter-style sausages

1 tablespoon fine-diced onion

1 tablespoon raisins

1 cup cooked and cooled long grain-rice

1 tablespoon ketchup

1 piece green leaf lettuce

1 small tomato, quartered

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