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By Yaani Dinu Mahapatuna October 21, 2019

Fried

When I think about fried rice, I cannot help but think of Plato. He argued strongly that art can be deceiving and perhaps highly manipulative; that art is only a faded imitation of the timeless or absolute ideas he referred to as the forms. Plato was right in the sense that (even in this day and age) we are quick to be deceived by physical appearance, to neglect more substantive characteristics in favour of the most visually appealing thing tossed in our direction. If any dish is the perfect example of deceptive appearances in the culinary arts, it is undoubtedly fried rice. 

Fried rice can vary in colour and aroma, texture and flavour profile, but one perpetual characteristic of fried rice is its tendency to be undervalued; to be treated as a bland side dish when its very humble Asiatic origins implicate that it was intended to be a simple (in terms of quantity and quality of ingredients), yet flavourful, standalone dish. Compare the idea of fried rice to Plato’s perception of the forms; if one is too preoccupied by the more physically enticing characteristics of other objects or dishes, it will be harder for them to recognize the value and importance of an underlying idea (or “form”) like the clean flavours and hearty warmth of good fried rice. The importance of any delicious meal, let alone fried rice, ultimately has nothing to do with appearance, but with technique.

Lately, I keep thinking about fried rice and how difficult it is to make.  At this statement, a culinary amateur may scoff. To the untrained eye, fried rice is a treasure chest of simplicity. However, for the professional (or amateur with delusions of grandeur), it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It seems simple on paper; take oil, heat oil, add vegetables, add rice, add seasoning and voila, fried rice! Yet, the perfect fried rice takes more than a couple of ingredients and the right pan. The perfect fried rice requires an aficionado or a stroke of good luck or perhaps a bit of both. Any average Joe can make your run of the mill fried rice; yet, it takes someone special to make great fried rice.

Fried rice is difficult for me not simply because I do not have access to the fanciest vegetables or even the best tools. It is difficult because there is an art to cooking that goes beyond ingredients and instruments; the same way a sport has less to do with its equipment and more with how the equipment is used. Technique in cooking is an essential skill. Ingredients, whether luxurious or not, are fragile and the way they are handled has an integral impact on the final product. I would even go so far as to argue that making simple dishes like fried rice require more technique than the exorbitantly overpriced baby-portions of farm-to-table vegetables and dry-aged meat that Michelin-starred restaurants and social media influencers are obsessed with flogging to the masses. 

Yes, you can take oil, heat oil, add vegetables, add rice, add seasoning and voila: have supremely average or even terrible fried rice! Or, you can warm several tablespoons of sesame oil, waiting until you hear the slightest hiss before adding your chopped onions and minced garlic; waiting until the onions have just reached the brink of translucence to add your carrots; waiting until the carrots have softened enough to release the enticing aroma that will inevitably flood your kitchen and draw the snoopy appearances of your family and friends. You could create a little space at the very center of your wok, cracking two eggs right into the ring of sizzling vegetables, using chopsticks to simultaneously break the yolks and stir your egg concoction into a pile of nonuniform, slightly runny scrambled eggs. You might whip out some day-old rice, adding a hunk of it straight into your wok along with some shredded chicken breast, putting your years of pretentiously flipping pancakes in mid-air into practice by tossing your rice and vegetables together, and finishing off your work with a generous drizzle of soy sauce, a few thinly-sliced scallions and a sneaky sprinkle of MSG. All of this hypothetical work would take less than fifteen minutes and would result in a good fried rice (at least by my standards). 

Change any individual step of the process and the whole dish would fall apart: use vegetable oil and you would lose the nutty taste of sesame oil; add onions and garlic too late and it would burn; add the soy sauce in too early and it would burn; add salt in addition to soy sauce and even the fanciest ingredients would be lost to the harsh taste of salt; use fresh rice instead of day-old and it will clump; do not use MSG (a largely natural flavour-enhancer which is stereotyped as being cancerous though no scientific studies support that claim) and the essence of umami that would have been coaxed out of the simplest of ingredients becomes non-existent, (you catch my drift right?). 

The hardest dishes to make, the ones that set apart a great chef from a mediocre chef, aren’t always the dishes that require fancy ingredients or dry-aging, but the ones that require precision and methodical thinking. So, what is keeping me, a mediocre chef at best, from perfection?  To put it simply, technique. The technique it takes to go beyond a pretty dish or an average dish and combine a thousand miniscule, yet equally important, steps together in producing one perfect fried rice.

About the author

Dinu is a 1st year student in Liberal Arts. 

Comments

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    jamiecannon

    January 26, 2020

    I have a deep passion for fried rice because of my Chinese heritage and loved reading this piece. I learned a lot about what goes into making the dish. Id never thought so deeply about fried rice before and I was especially impressed by the connection to plato in the introduction. I also strongly agree with the statement that top tier ingredients aren’t the most important aspect of cooking, technique is. Cooking is an under appreciated art. This was really enjoyable to read and thanks for the new fried rice recipe!

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    maria_bocearov

    January 27, 2020

    Your writing was very thoughtful. I have never thought about “culinary art” and the physical appearance of food in relation to its taste and quality, from the perspective you so skillfully expressed. You opened my eyes by expressing your opinion on how it is not the ingredients that are important in the art of culinary but more the technique with which they are being used and the approach you take to cook the meal or dessert. It is fascinating how you manage to communicate the significance of the way the products are handled in the cooking process to contribute to the final outcome.

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    Isabela_r

    January 27, 2020

    The vocabulary used in this piece was so rich in senses that it truly makes the reader feel the fried rice. The whole section about how to actually make fried rice is presented with rare delicacy, showing how fragile making something can be if we pay enough attention to it. The other thing that I really appreciated in this text is the researched Plato analogy of art. Anything can become art and art can be superficial to the point of deception. I really felt how gastronomy, culture, and art are mixed in this example, clearly showing how balance is the key and how we must not take things for granted.

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    Vanessa DiPietrantonio

    January 27, 2020

    I have to admit that I never put much thought into the art of cooking. I guess that I had always taken for granted my mom and my grandmother’s homemade cooking. I thought your piece was really insightful and captivating because it gave me a different perspective of food - not just as the sum of ingredients, but as the technique of a cook’s craft. Cooking really is an art, and I thought that your expressed your point so clearly and beautifully .

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    Joel O'Kill

    January 27, 2020

    You know, I never even knew how to make fried rice till I read your story! I’m sure glad I did because I’m not only hungry for some good fried rice but now you have opened my eyes to the idea that the technique of doing something that some might consider simple can actually be very in depth and that one can actually have a very deep understanding of fried rice. I really liked your story because I could feel your emotion in it and could tell how passionate you are about fried rice and all the intricacies that can come about when making such a meal. I aspire to have a passion for food like you do one day. 

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    mvallinakis

    January 27, 2020

    It is amazing to see how many complex life lessons can be learned in an act as “simple” as preparing fried rice. Thanks to this piece, it is clear that no act in life can or should be considered simple. Fifteen people can be given the same recipe, but the results will be fifteen totally different meals. Your fried rice analogy can be applied to any situation in life, whether it is a person’s studies or their personal relationships with people. It is not about the guidelines that are laid out for us, but rather how we take those guidelines and apply our own methods for our absolute best results.

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    Vanessa DiPietrantonio

    January 27, 2020

    To further add, I also liked how you connected fried rice to Plato’s perception how there lies more beneath the surface of so many crafts and that we shouldn’t take overlook the hard work and technique one took to accomplish it.

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    Brett

    January 27, 2020

    Your description of the perfect fried rice was so detailed that I was beginning to imagine the taste the dish even though I have never tried it before. I’m a mediocre chef and I have allergies to several ingredients used in the kitchens of Chinese restaurants, but I’m hoping one day I will be able to try the perfect fired rice. I particularly liked your use of imagery to make the reader almost taste the dish. I found it interesting that you emphasized that the most important part of cooking is technique rather than fancy ingredients. Your article has made me think about some of the techniques I use when I’m cooking at home. Thank you for this article, it was very insightful.

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    CCG

    January 27, 2020

    This reflection made me think of how often we do things in our everyday life without being thoughtful. It is like we go on autopilot. I have cooked fried rice before, but I never stopped to think about how I was making it and how I was using the ingredients. I liked how descriptive this reflection was in the different steps of the recipe, and how the imagery was detailed. I also enjoyed the reference to sports equipment, it made me understand better how important technique is in cooking. The creative and technical part of cooking was well expressed in this reflection, I shall focus on that next time I attempt fried rice!

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    Justin H

    January 27, 2020

    I would have never imagine having Plato and fried rice in a same sentence yet having such a strong meaning and significance. This piece made me realize how something we think is simple can be totally different or complex for someone else. Although I do not know how to make fried rice, I always thought people would think the same way about fried rice: you have rice, you put some vegetables and some oil, you cook it altogether and you have yourself fried rice! But in fact, it can be perceived as something more difficult (thinking about seasoning, the temperature you use to cook the rice, and more). Such enriching words and idea that it makes me crave for fried rice right now!

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    Jennifer Chtein

    January 27, 2020

    I completely agree with you, cooking is an art! I’ve never put much thought into the techniques of cooking despite my mom perpetually telling me that I do not enjoy her food for the reason that she despises cooking. She puts in minimal effort and adds random ingredients while hoping for a decent taste. Reading your reflection has motivated me to try cooking myself by incorporating precise techniques in order to avoid the dish falling apart during my attempt. My first dish will definitely be fried rice as you’ve expressed it in such passion and emotion that I cannot ignore!

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    cassandra costanza

    January 29, 2020

    I do often cook and am a mediocre chef at best as well, but thinking now the amount of technique and the willingness to improve that technique is what makes you grow and get better at cooking. The ingredients very often have little effect on the dish but taking that extra minute and “waiting until the carrots have softened” can make the whole difference. Often i’ve made meals with whatever neglected ingredients starred back at me in the empty fridge which is where technique and creativity helped me make something delicious.

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    mikaela.andreadakis

    February 3, 2020

    I never knew that preparing fried rice could be such a romantic and philosophical process. The diction and imagery used make it feel like you can almost smell the delectable aroma of the rice and taste the richness of the dish. The way that the author, Dinu, shares her love and enthusiasm for the culinary arts makes me want to find that same passion for activities in my own life. She really emphasizes that it’s attention and precision, rather than luxurious materials, that can truly elevate a practice and make it spectacular. Her message of attention and thoughtfulness rings true for so many aspects of human life; when we have passion for the things we do, the very act of doing it becomes a labour of love.

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