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.