Inspired by the SGV’s Chengdu Taste: Chengdu Fried Rice (Chengdu Chao Fan)
Fong Chong Can Cook~~
Of the many things that inspired us on our many visits to the famed Chengdu Taste in the San Gabriel Valley this past summer, the simplest—and simplest to recreate—was their Chengdu Fried Rice. It has just three main ingredients: eggs, scallions and yacai. Their version took our favorite style of fried rice—loaded with lots of big chunks of egg—and supercharged it with lots of yacai, Sichuan’s go-to preserved vegetable.
Yacai doesn’t have the sour bite or texture of a pickle, like the better known “Sichuan preserved vegetable,” or zha cai. Instead, this preserved, seasoned, minced mustard green stem is pure green veggie essence. Super savory and slightly salty, yacai is the perfect complement to the creamy eggs and sharp scallions.
Fried rice means different things to different people in China. I learned this when I took a cooking class from a well-known instructor in Hong Kong and she stressed how important it was for every grain of rice to be coated with the egg and for there to be no pieces of visible egg in the final dish.
The standard-bearer of fried rice, however, is the version from Yangzhou, in eastern China, which has small bits of egg as well as ham, shrimp, green peas and scallions. It is the basis for American-Chinese fried rice, though the Cantonese in the U.S. replaced the ham with their barbeque pork. Another thing they changed is the flavoring. While American-Chinese fried rice ranges from light to dark brown from the addition of lots of soy sauce, Chinese-Chinese fried rice is almost always white. Very little, if any, sauce is used, since it is not at all necessary for super taste.
You can, of course, put anything you like in fried rice. I’ve seen gong bao ji ding (kung pao chicken) fried rice on the menu in Chengdu. This Chengdu version uses a quintessentially Sichuan ingredient, but I’m not sure if it’s a Chengdu Taste original or a Sichuan specialty; I’ve never seen it in Sichuan. Have you?
I realize that despite my prodding and pleading, and despite the fact that I go on at length about it here, many of you will not be able to lay your hands on yacai (look for the brand that says Suimiyacai). But this recipe is also kind of a blueprint for fried rice, so you could substitute, perhaps, minced spinach, or use anything else you think sounds good with this method. You can also add pre-cooked small shrimp or Chinese sausage and make it more of a one-wok meal than a side dish. This version has lots of flavor, but not so much that it conflicts with your other dishes. (If you want more flavor or heat, I highly recommend adding some Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Crisp. It’s my favorite use for The Godmother.)
Fried rice really is as easy—or almost—as it sounds. To prove that fact, here is my 16-year-old daughter Fong Chong making it. Though she has been reluctant to cook in the past, her obsession with eating is finally getting the best of her, and she’s realizing she might need to be able to cook this food for herself someday. Fried rice necessity is the mother of invention!
The formula we have worked out for our version of Chengdu fried rice is one egg, one tablespoon yacai and two scallions per one cup of rice. A normal size wok can accommodate four cups of rice, so I multiplied the ingredients by four for a large wokful of fried rice.
If you prefer more action with your cooking instruction, check out this video from Bon Appetit in which the incomparable Danny Bowien, of Mission Chinese fame, makes one of his wacky but delicious Sichuan-based dishes: fried rice with beef jerky and potato chips. Regardless of ingredients, he stresses some of the very same fried-rice-making tips that I have been taught or taught myself over the years—namely using freshly cooked, cooled jasmine rice (everyone always says use left-over cold rice because fresh causes a sticky mess; but it doesn’t), being generous with the oil, and finishing with chicken broth.
- 4 tablespoons suimi yacai (preserved mustard greens)
- 4 eggs, well mixed
- 4 cups freshly cooked, cooled Thai jasmine rice
- 6-8 scallions, thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons Chinese light soy sauce
- ¼ cup chicken broth
- Heat wok over high heat until you see wisps of smoke. Add 1 tablespoon peanut or canola oil, turn down heat, and add yacai. Stir-fry briefly, just to warm through. Remove and set aside.
- Wash out wok and return to high heat. When wok is hot, heat 4 tablespoons oil and swirl it up the sides of the wok. Lower heat and add eggs. Swirl eggs just a bit up the wok, then leave to sit and cook undisturbed until they are about ¾ done. The longer you leave the omelet to cook undisturbed, the larger the egg pieces in the final dish. Be careful not to brown them.
- Add rice, yacai and scallions (leaving a few out for garnish) and stir-fry with the egg, mixing well and breaking up any clumps of rice (there won't be many since you're using freshly cooked rice). Turn up heat to high and let wok sit on heat to sear a few rice grains, then continue to stir-fry. Do this a couple times. Add the soy sauce to the chicken broth and drizzle the mixture around the edges of the wok. Stir-fry until well mixed and very hot, being careful not to break down all the egg bits.
- Plate and garnish with remaining scallions.