On Decent Fried Rice

From another place, at another time.

I didn’t learn to make decent fried rice until after my mother died.

Actually, I learned to make decent fried rice because my mother died.

I thought about this the other day as I was making my now-famous fried rice for dinner. My fried rice is not a side dish; oh, no, my fried rice has most of the food groups in it and is so hearty we usually eat it as a meal. It’s impossible to make fried rice for one or two. When I make fried rice, it’s for an army, and if there’s a shortage of diners, we eat leftovers, sometimes for days.

For fried rice, I will use a package of American long grain rice instead of Japanese sticky rice, which is better suited for sushi. I cook it on the stove instead of using my Zushi rice maker, because I need the grains to be slightly undercooked and dry. For most of my culinary outings, I rely on thirty years of tried and true methods instead of recipes. I eyeball the amount of rice, the size and type of saucepan, and add the water accordingly.

While the rice is cooking, I start chopping vegetables. I’ve found you don’t need many; about a half cup of everything is all you need. I like my carrots chopped in cubes. I use plain yellow onions, and chop broccoli into fine florets. The small button mushrooms are fine for fried rice. If there are no fresh peapods, which need to be cut into small pieces, I’ll take a half-cup of frozen peas. I do something some people might consider funny – I will put each vegetable into a paper towel, and arrange them on my counter in the order they will go into the wok. I start from the carrots and hard vegetables and work my way down to peas. Plenty of bean sprouts and cut scallions end the production line. As the vegetables go into the wok, I use the paper towels to clean up after myself.

Three or four eggs are scrambled, and then fried in a pan. Just as the eggs are cooked on one side, I’ll turn off the flame and flip the omelet completely over. As the eggs are cooking, I’ll slice them into quarter inch strips.

The meat is the fun part. A quarter pound each of chicken breast, pork loin, and beef are chopped into small pieces. If I’m feeling very festive, I’ll thaw out a quarter pound of shrimp to add at the end. All the meat is separated and put into marinades of soy sauce and ginger for a half hour to an hour.

When I’m ready, I heat the wok to as high as it will go, and add peanut or sesame oil and a little garlic. First the chicken is added, then pork, and finally beef. More soy sauce is poured in, depending on how much liquid develops. (I told you, I fly by the seat of my pants on this.) Then I add the carrots, broccoli, and yellow onions. Just as things are cooking, I’ll add the cooked white rice and stir. The last things to be added to the wok are the peas, bean sprouts, egg, shrimp and green onions, and they’re just heated through.

Before my mother died, I didn’t really know how to make fried rice. Oh, I tried, again and again. Once I had a roommate who was half-Hawaiian, and she showed me how to make Hawaiian fried rice. It wasn’t very good – maybe because at the time my roommate was 16, pregnant and relying on the memory of her mother’s cooking. I studied the fried rice of different Chinese and Japanese restaurants, trying to get a combination of ingredients in harmony so that I could tolerate eating it. No matter what I tried, there was always something wrong with my efforts.

My mother was a terrible cook. Sure, she was Japanese. You would think that she, of all people, should have known how to cook, especially the foods that she ate as a child. Unfortunately for me, she grew up in a wealthy household, privileged to have cooks to make her meals. My favorite story is that on her first trip shopping in California, she bought food items depending on the picture on the box or can. She was disappointed once she got home to learn that Crisco was not a cherry pie.

Once situated in America, she grew to like processed food. I didn’t eat a non-canned mushroom or asparagus until my late twenties. I didn’t make my own French fries from real potatoes until the kids were born. Like her, I had a deathly fear of the produce section.

Fifteen years ago, my mother passed away. She was only 58. I was a young mother then who still had not learned to make fried rice, and at the time I was mad at her for many other reasons and for dying too young.

After the funeral, we held a family gathering at my father’s house, which was big of him considering my parents had been divorced for ten years. One of the couples who dropped by to give their condolences were friends, Joe and his wife Akiko. Joe was in the military with my father, and Akiko was friends with my mother as a result. Their children were younger, but the ages of my younger sisters. We spent many Saturday afternoons together as families.

Joe was a cook in the Army, and after he retired, lived in Tokyo and went to the culinary school there. When he came back to Colorado, he and Akiko opened up a Japanese restaurant in Fountain, which was a ranch town between Pueblo and Colorado Springs. This was back in the 1960s and their little place was in a cinder block building right on Highway 85-87. You wouldn’t think that dusty ranchers would like sushi and teriyaki chicken, but the place was hopping all the time.

Now, here they were at my father’s house, much older as we all were, helping us remember my mother. Akiko brought a large dish with her, as everyone did, covered neatly with aluminum foil. My sister, Nita, and I opened the dish along with the others, in preparation of feeding those who stopped by.

Both of us stopped in amazement as the aluminum foil was pulled back. It was fried rice! It was the most gorgeously beautiful fried rice we had ever seen! It was a dish perfectly balanced with fluffy rice, perfectly cooked meat, crunchy vegetables, and pink shrimp. Both of us filled our bowls and enjoyed. Then we took the dish, covered it and hid it in the back of the refrigerator.

Later, when the rest of my sisters and brother were in the backyard on the trampoline bouncing up and down, Nita and I sat down with Akiko and asked her the secret of her perfect fried rice. Perhaps it was because she felt sorry for us, or maybe because she’s a genuinely nice woman, but she generously shared her recipe with us. She told us the importance of using long grained rice, and how to cut the vegetables into uniform and small pieces. She also informed us how important it was to put the ingredients together based on how long each needs to be cooked.

I don’t like to brag, but I have made perfect fried rice ever since.

Every time I gather the ingredients to make it, I think about the circumstance that led me to be able to make decent fried rice.


9 Responses

  1. This STILL makes me hungry. I’ll give you sufficient heads-up before I show up at your door for Rice Night, I promise.

  2. Sissy stole my comment. Why do people keep doing that?

  3. You BOTH stole my comment. Now I have to come up with something original of my own.

    I loved the story about no cherry pie in the Crisco can. I hate to admit what a fan I am of processed foods, too. I try to teach Kevin about them, but he keeps coming up with fresh stuff for me.

  4. Your poor mother!

    I love good fried rice, but it’s hard to find. I may have to try to make it.

  5. I found this very touching! I have no idea why.

  6. If you have ever had my fried rice, AJ, you would know why!


  7. I still love both this and you.

  8. I love this post. I think of it often. I think one day we should give each other lessons. I’ll teach you to make flour tortillas and you can teach me to make fried rice! What a deal!

  9. That WOULD be a deal! I had a recipe for tortillas, and every time I made them, they would morph into pancakes. What a disaster.

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