So you think you know fried rice?
Rice, eggs, and what else? Chinese fried rice: a history and deconstruction by Simmer.
Recently, Simmer added a new feature called Item Education. It aims to give context to ingredients to help users order with more confidence. “You learn something new every day,” as the saying goes.
But is there anything to learn about something as ubiquitous as fried rice?
Here’s a question that many of us are probably too afraid to ask at this point: does Jasmine rice actually smell like jasmine?
As a Chinese-American, I love fried rice. Understated and underestimated, today, I want to give it the proper story it deserves — and tell of the centuries of history that lurk behind each ingredient.
Without further ado…
Fried Rice, a history. Alt title: Fried rice is not just an ordinary dish.
It is widely believed that fried rice came from Central Asia during the Han dynasty, where the now staple was known as muxufan. It was a rice dish made with “muxu,” a plant called medick that has many health and medicinal benefits. Silk Road founder Zhang Qian was one of the first advocates for muxufan.
From there, fried rice spread across China through the Hexi Corridor. The Emperor of Manchu even ordered his Imperial Kitchen to develop a formal recipe! However, it was only until the Sui dynasty did the popularity of this dish finally skyrocket, where it was adopted by the peasants.
From there, fried rice made a name for itself as cheap comfort food, a reputation that stuck when it was finally introduced to America in the 1900s. The influx of Chinese laborers incited nativist movements, which forced the laborers into menial laundry or restaurant jobs. With little to no culinary background, the Chinese served dishes they grew up eating — like fried rice. Their low-ranking status passed on a “less-than” connotation that extends to not just fried rice, but also other popular takeout dishes today.
BTW, shoutout to David Chang’s Ugly Delicious for teaching me that this little box: 🥡was actually invented in America.
Fried rice my way, a deconstruction. Alt title: Welcome to my fridge.
Rice 米 mi — Initially a meal for the wealthy, rice became a staple by the Han dynasty. Poems like “Min Nong” celebrated rice. When cooking fried rice, Thailand’s Jasmine rice is preferred for its stickiness. Interestingly, “jasmine” doesn’t denote fragrance (the aroma is closer to that of the pandan plant), but the whiteness of the jasmine flower.
Oyster sauce 蚝油 hao you— Known as the “happiest accident in the culinary world,” the founder of Lee Kum Kee unwittingly discovered this thick, dark sauce — bursting with sweet umami — when he overcooked his oysters. Today’s storebought version contains simmered oysters, soy, and brine, and various additives.
Soy sauce 酱油 jiang you— Two centuries old, this salty paste started as an imperial condiment of fermented raw meat. Only emperors could stomach the high production costs. The public later found that soybeans were a cheaper alternative to meat — and popularized “soy” sauce as a way to stretch their salt supply.
MSG 味精 wei jing— Invented in Japan in 1908, this misunderstood “umami” spice has gained a bad rep as an unhealthy additive in Chinese food. However, this flavor enhancer is present in most processed foods. Grab a pack of chips and see if monosodium glutamate is an ingredient!
Scallion 葱 xiang cong — Scallions are supporting characters, acting as aromatics, toppings, or sides. The herb is indispensable to the overall taste and presentation.
Garlic 蒜 suan— This herb was first introduced to China by Zhang Qian during his second expedition into Central Asia. Garlic has since been a main part of Chinese culture — not only for its believed fire and heat culinary properties but also for its shape and color that symbolize jewelry and white hair.
Sprinkling the scallions n’ sesame seeds. Alt title: My final thoughts.
Yes, fried rice is a common dish eaten every day. But it offers more than just a filling meal.
When I sit down with a bowl of fried rice, I am savoring grains of rich history and heritage. And, I am at home.
Next time you sit in front of a bowl of fried rice, I hope you, too, can taste each ingredient and the storied sum of its parts, and appreciate it just a little bit more.
Izzy from the Simmer team
How do you make your favorite fried rice? Tell us in the comments below!
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