“I don’t know what the fuss is about fried rice,” says Manu Chandra, chef and partner at Monkey Bar, Cantan and Toast & Tonic, before going on to talk about fried rice for 15 minutes; its art and science, how the kind of heat we achieve in home kitchens is simply inadequate to cook really good fried rice (not that we shouldn’t try), and why surface area is just as important as temperature while rustling up a batch of the internet’s favourite dish.
You could say it all started with “Uncle Roger”. Started by Malaysian-British comedian Nigel Ng, the YouTube channel created the persona of the orange T-shirt clad, opinionated and painfully blunt Chinese uncle who critiqued fried rice videos by other YouTube creators and even, gradually, rockstar chefs like Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay. “Roger” is unsparing in his criticism—his scorn-filled reaction to Oliver using chilli jam to flavour his fried rice has become the stuff of internet legend, and one of the most trenchant takedowns in the history of food criticism.
Uncle Roger also started the whole internet craze of making fried rice. Suddenly, everyone was trying their hand at it. YouTube videos ranging from the grotesque (a British woman making fried rice by frying uncooked rice) to the sublime (Kyoto-style Japanese fried rice cooked excruciatingly slowly on a teppanyaki table) started climbing the charts, and Twitter threads about the relative merits of using pre-cooked leftover rice versus freshly cooked rice raged for days.
What is it about this seemingly simple dish that makes it such a favourite of food nerds? First, it is not actually simple, and although it requires few ingredients and is not elaborate or time-taking to make, there is a ton of science and technique behind getting it absolutely right—glistening rice grains coated with just the right amount of oil and flavour, neither mushy nor hard but perfectly al dente, with garlic and shallots (the absolute must-have ingredients) adding texture to every bite. Weighing in on the “overnight rice vs fresh rice” debate, Chandra says leftover rice is always preferable as it lets the starches in the rice become firm, and the firmness helps you perform the “aggressive wok application” that is a prerequisite for perfectly tossed fried rice.
American chef and writer J. Kenji López-Alt, author of The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, would say it’s “wok fei”, or “wok heat”—the heat generated at the bottom of a deep wok, the ideal cooking vessel for fried rice—which travels upwards when the rice is tossed to caramelise some of the grains, that lends fried rice its crunchy texture and nutty flavour.
Chef Vikramjit Roy, co-founder of Sirius Hospitality, which runs restaurants like Hello Panda and Park Street Rolls, says one of the few dishes he always asks trainee chefs to make when he is testing their skills is egg fried rice. “It is an exquisitely simple yet difficult dish to make, and it is the ultimate test of a chef’s technique. Do you know when your pan is hot? Do you know exactly when to add the egg, and the rice, and when to salt your dish? Egg fried rice tests these skills thoroughly,” says Roy. “It is also a great test of one of the most difficult skills to acquire as a chef—restraint. When I ask chefs to cook egg fried rice, they want to show off their skills and knowledge, and are often tempted to overdo it. But egg fried rice is a dish that requires great restraint, to not add too many ingredients and sauces, to just hold back enough to let the egg coat every grain of rice and do its magic.”
Though a perfectly acceptable dish to eat on its own, with maybe a condiment like sambal belacan sauce on the side, chefs do play around with variations. Roy loves Hello Panda’s kimchi fried rice, while Chandra, despite his professed nonchalance towards the dish, has put almost 20 variations of it across his menus at Monkey Bar, The Fatty Bao, Cantan and Toast & Tonic—from the Stir Fried Jasmine Rice With Mushroom and Spinach at The Fatty Bao and Mushroom and Truffle Oil Fried Rice at Cantan to the Gundruk Fried Rice, made with the fermented leafy green vegetable popular in Nepal, at Monkey Bar.
The chefs have varying styles of cooking the eggs as well— while Chandra prefers to fry the egg just before adding the rice to the wok, and then mix them up, Roy’s preferred technique is to cook half the amount of egg he will be using first, let it cook till 40%, add the rice, and then add the rest of the egg to cook along with the grains, so that “every grain of rice is enveloped by the egg”.
As for the eternal leftover vs fresh rice question, López-Alt, after a series of experiments with freshly cooked rice dried and cooled under a fan, rice that has been loosely wrapped and left in the refrigerator, and rice tightly wrapped in airtight boxes in the refrigerator, concludes that there is hope for the home chef who hankers for egg fried rice and has to start by cooking fresh rice. “Freshly cooked rice spread out on a plate will steam a great deal as its surface moisture is evaporated. That’s the important part. It’s the surface moisture that is going to cause your rice to rapidly suppress the temperature of the wok. It’s the surface moisture that’s going to cause your rice to stick together…. Rice that has been cooked, spread on to a tray, then placed under a fan for about an hour, comes out dry but not stale—exactly what you want,” he concludes, while revealing the results of his experiment in a meticulously recorded post on the website Serious Eats, where he is the chief culinary consultant.
Technical quibbling aside, fried rice is a great one-pot dish which fills all the prerequisites of comfort food—you have everything you need to make it in your fridge and pantry, and it takes very little prep and cooking. Throw in bits of bacon, and you have heaven in your bowl.