My grandmother made rice-lover’s fried rice: a heap of steamed jasmine that she seasoned subtly and cluttered judiciously with mix-ins so as not to obscure the grains’ delicate fragrance and tender chew. It was strictly a leftovers dish, but she planned for it as deliberately as any other stir‑fry, cooking a big batch of rice for our meal the day before so that there’d be plenty to cook with later. Along the way, she saw to it that I learned how to execute a proper pot. Perching me on a chair beside her, she’d swish and swirl my hand through the soaking grains until the water clouded, and she taught me to strain off the starchy liquid and repeat the rinsing process two more times so that the rice wouldn’t cook up sticky. She’d flatten her hand over the damp, ivory kernels and instruct me to add enough cooking water to just cover the knuckle of her pointer finger. Years later, when I got older and my hand got bigger, I was allowed to measure the water with my own knuckle.
A Love Letter to Simple Fried Rice
When it was time to stir-fry, she’d slick the wok with oil; sizzle some chopped scallions; and then toss the stiff, brittle clumps of cooked rice in the oniony fat so that they mopped up its aromatic savoriness and relaxed into pliant, distinct grains. That gloss of infused oil plus salt and pepper and the jasmine’s popcorn-y aroma accounted for most of the dish’s flavor. Whatever chopped-up proteins and vegetables were being repurposed—lap cheong (salty-sweet Chinese pork sausage), eggs, carrots, shrimp, peas—were there as pops of crunch, chew, and succulence.
Cooking with her was a master class in restraint, and to my mind that approach still delivers the nicest, easiest fried rice. There’s no garlic or ginger to mince, no spices or curry paste to bloom, and no sauce to mix up, which keeps the prep work minimal and the backdrop neutral and cozy—not plain, but simply devoted to the loveliness of the namesake ingredient. Cantonese egg fried rice might be the closest analog, but what she made reflected her life in both China and Vietnam and was very much her own. Same goes for the version I’ve created here, which is as much a tribute to her approach as it is an extension of it.
The Nicest Rice for Frying
Making fried rice is a great way to use up the dry, clumpy leftover grains that you have in the fridge, but if you’re feeding multiple people you’ll probably need to make extra rice for stir‑frying. Here are three steps we always take when cooking rice for fried rice.
1. Rinse and drain well
It’s important to rid the raw grains of surface starch so that the cooked rice isn’t too sticky and readily breaks apart into individual grains as you stir-fry it.
2. Cook in advance
Fried rice is best made with day-old rice.The starch molecules in cooked rice crystallize (or retrograde) during chilling, and the hard, dry clumps of rice separate easily into individual grains that can be thoroughly coated in the flavorful seasoned oil. When stir-fried, these grains will turn pleasantly tender-firm—but not mushy.
3. Temper; then stir‑fry
If you’re working with fridge-cold rice, let it sit at room temperature while you prep the other ingredients so that the clumps soften and become easier to break apart during cooking. Alternatively, microwave it at 50 percent power for 2 minutes.
Seasoned with Scallions
Jasmine has always been my default rice, and it’s especially worth using in a stripped-down stir-fry such as this, where its delicate fragrance can stand out. As with any type of fried rice, day-old stuff is best. The dry, clumpy grains can be pushed around the high, sloped sides of the wok without turning mushy, and after a few minutes the stove’s heat restores just enough of their tenderness to make them pleasantly firm.
The more nuanced work of making simple fried rice is seasoning it, and the magic of scallion-infused oil can’t be overstated. When you slice and toast the white part of the stalk in neutral oil and then toss the rice in it to coat, the grassy, fatty-tasting hot oil saturates each grain with beguilingly pervasive savoriness. Paired with ample salt and pepper, the effect is quiet but deliberate—and so tasty.
Fragrance You Can Taste
It’s fine to use conventional white rice when you’re seasoning the dish with assertive aromatics and sauces. But in simple fried rice, it’s worth seeking out a fragrant variety such as jasmine. Native to Thailand and a staple of many East and Southeast Asian cuisines, jasmine rice has a highly prized aroma, due in part to its high concentration of a delicately popcorn-like, floral‑smelling compound called 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline (2AP). The gold standard strain of jasmine, known as Hom Mali (“good smelling”), receives special government certification, and packages of jasmine rice that are tested to be purebred descendents of that strain, including our favorite, from Dynasty, are stamped with a green seal from Thailand’s Department of Foreign Trade.
In the Mix
While stir-frying and seasoning the rice, I press down on the clumps with a spatula to break them up so that they separate into fluffy, distinct grains that easily merge with the mix-ins, and I aim for a ratio of roughly 1 part chopped proteins and vegetables to 2½ parts rice so that the finished product is appropriately grain-heavy. Sometimes it’s a fridge clean-out: cubed roast chicken, a handful of bean sprouts, punchy bits of ya cai (fermented Sichuan mustard greens), lacy shreds of napa cabbage. But when I plan for it, I tend to go for a combination of ham, carrots, peas, and egg. There’s virtually no prep work, and in between the tender chew of the grains of rice are smoky, meaty morsels of ham; sweet pops of vegetables; and—when I scramble them hot and fast—gently puffed egg curds. (For more information, see “Smoking-Hot Scrambled Eggs.”)
Smoking-Hot Scrambled Eggs
Pockets of fluffy scrambled eggs are a fried-rice staple, and the key to their texture is to cook them hot and fast. Poured into oil that’s just beginning to smoke (not merely shimmering), the eggs puff as their water rapidly turns to steam and their proteins set. In less than a minute, they’re tender enough to break apart easily but still hold their shape as you toss them in the rice.
The only real strategy is to add the ingredients based on how much cooking they need. Eggs always go first, since they should be fully set. When wisps of smoke rise from the pan, I pour in the sunny whisked liquid and gently pile the puffed curds atop each other while allowing the still-runny egg to spill across the wok and cook. After shuttling them onto a plate to cool, I stir-fry dense produce such as carrots or broccoli until they’re mostly tender, followed by precooked proteins such as ham and naturally tender items such as peppers or snap peas. Those items get moved to a plate while the oil is seasoned and the rice stir-fried, and then I stir the precooked proteins and vegetables into the hot rice along with peas and anything else that just needs to warm through. Raw sliced scallion greens are added at the end, bringing bursts of sharp, oniony bite—the flip side of that subtle yet unmistakable allium savoriness that glossed the grains.