Friggin’ staff meals – they are the bane of my existence. If you have spent anytime at all working as a waiter, or as a kitchen hand, or even a bartender who pours booze at a joint that serves meals, then you will know what it is like to hang out for the chefs to serve up the staff meal. Sometimes these meals can be great – tasty, imaginative and filling fixins served up by a bored or perhaps a generous-of-spirit chef. But these ‘sometimes’ really are in the minority. In the main, "staffies" as they are affectionately known are miserly, ill-conceived and shoddy at best, and at their worst can be unappetizing, sloppy leftovers shovelled onto plates by a thirsty and disgruntled chef. Note the thirsty part - if you are a bartender who is under-awed by the staff meals you have been receiving lately – take this as a tip – keep the drinks flowing to the kitchen staff and watch your meals improve over night.
More years ago now than I care to think about I was working at a tiny, tiny restaurant owned by a quiet, yet thoroughly cool Thai guy called Khit. We didn’t serve Thai food, but during the year that I worked at the joint I slowly came to realized that Khit was a little treasure trove of authentic Thai recipes. He was the first person that really showed me how to cook genuine, home-style Thai.
After one of my first shifts working with Khit, he asked me if I would like some lunch – a staffie. Sure, I replied – never pass up on a freebie, especially as I was fairly skint back in those days. I was expecting him to dish up one of the western-style meals we had on the menu, so I was pretty damn disappointed when he said that we were simply having fried rice for lunch. I thought of fried rice back then as some of you may still do now – stolid, bland rice studded with a few peas and carrots, destined to be served alongside faux-Chinese take-away standards such as sweet and sour pork and beef in black bean sauce.
How wrong I was. What Khit served up that afternoon was like fried rice for the gods. It didn’t simply carry just a few tired vegetables; instead lashings of prawns, green onions and shiitake mushrooms peeked promisingly out of the rice. And the rice itself was different - wonderfully spicy and rich. No doubt this was due to the mysterious Thai seasonings he had used, but there was something else that added to the stunning richness and depth of flavour. Each grain of rice seemed coated with a yummy goodness that I soon learned was due to the unique way Thais use eggs in their fried rice - a tip I shall share. To top it all off, not everything on the plate had been cooked. Providing a counterpoint to the multitude of confronting flavours in the rice were cooling, crisp and crunchy vegetables – bean sprouts, sliced shallots, Thai basil, sliced tomatoes and crushed peanuts – plus wedges of lime alongside so we could add a refreshing splash of zingy acidity.
So what is it exactly that sets Thai fried rice so far apart from all the others? For a start, Thai fried rice is never served as part of a meal, or as an accompaniment to other dishes. Jasmine rice – or on occasion sticky rice – is always used in that role. You will unfailingly find this fried rice served as a stand alone dish, be it as a quick snack, light lunch or a tasty supper. To be fair, Chinese fried rice is traditionally treated in the same manner, but it has been bastardized in the west to such a degree that its role as a lame accompaniment has become virtually (and sadly) cemented.
Because it is a stand alone dish, the ingredients in Thai fried rice are generally more substantial than the token pea or corn kernel found in many other renditions. You can expect to find generous chunks of meat, maybe chicken or pork. Or perhaps some glistening seafood; prawns, clams, or squid – maybe even bean curd as well, along with a wide array of vegetables and perhaps even fruit such as pineapple or lychees. The combinations are only fenced in by imagination and the richness of your larder. Another unique touch used in most Thai fried rice recipes is a complexly flavoursome spice paste such as chilli jam, or pepper coriander paste that pervades the entire dish with dense and deep flavours. You could even use a good quality, store-bought Thai curry paste. And then, there is the egg trick. Most fried rice recipes contain egg, and most usually as a separately cooked, thin omelette that is sliced into strips add tossed through the rice. Yeah well… ho hum. Those cunning Thais have this following little trick up their sleeves. Before the rice is added, an egg is cracked into the wok, left for a few seconds for the whites to set a bit, then the egg is deftly scrambled through the spicy flavourings. Now I know what you are thinking - using scrambled eggs in fried rice like this may sound a little bizzare. Put any misgivings aside - when the rice is added, rather than unappetising lumps of scrambled egg lurking in the dish, the eggs sneakily bind to the rice, coating each grain and bringing a filling richness to the finished dish. Basically it turns what could simply be a plate of rice into a delicious and substantial meal – or the perfect snack.
- Jasmine rice is what would be traditionally used in Thailand, so aim for this if possible. However, if unavailable any generic long grain rice should do just as nicely.
- Never, ever make fried rice from freshly cooked, hot rice. The dish was invented as a way to use up cold, leftover cooked rice, and tradition is not the only reason to keep in step with this method. Fresh, hot rice will simply end up lumpen and gluey when fried. The very best rice to use is cold, but not refrigerated. If cooking rice specifically for this dish, use the absorption method (you really should use it as a matter of course anyway), spread in a thin layer on a plate or tray and allow to cool for a couple of hours at room temperature. This will result in plump and moist, yet defiantly separate grains when cooked. Having said that, using fridge cold rice comes a pretty close second, so don’t hesitate to use that if you have some on hand.
- Use enough oil. The quantities of oil suggested in the following recipes may at first seem a little excessive. They aren’t. It is important to use enough oil to coat each grain of rice thoroughly so they firstly stay fluffy and separate, then secondly aid each grain to take on a seductive colour and an addictive toastiness. Besides, the oil used is polyunsaturated, and if you have no medical reason to limit polyunsaturated fats then perhaps you may need to get a grip.
- Don’t fry the rice at too high a temperature. Most wok recipes require some impressively intense heat – this isn’t one of them. Get the wok hot for sure, but in practical terms a polite, medium to high heat is what you are aiming for. This will afford the rice enough time to take on a golden exterior without the spice paste, eggs and other ingredients burning first.
- Don’t slavishly follow the ingredients I suggest below – remember that fried rice was traditionally a way to use up leftovers, so make sure you use what you have on the hang. Conversely, don’t use tired, rubbishy ingredients. They won’t get any better just because you mixed them with rice. As long as you remember this following basic pattern, you simply can’t go wrong; Heat the wok and add oil, fry the spice paste, scramble the egg, add the slower cooking ingredients, add rice, add the quicker cooking ingredients, season, serve and garnish. Simple or what?
- The best tool to for stir frying your rice also happens to be the ideal tool for most wok dishes – a chan. However, if you don’t own one of these, then a big, sturdy wooden spoon will cover it. Take this as a hint though – next time you are in Chinatown, grab yourself a chan. They are cheap and your stir fries will improve out of sight.
I’ll give you two recipes here, simply to illustrate the diversity of flavourings you can use. Both recipes serve one person as a fairly substantial meal, but can be safely increased to serve two by simply doubling the ingredients. If you are feeding any more than two, it is best to cook the dish in batches as most homes don’t have woks big enough or burners hot enough to handle the extra load.
Fried rice with chicken, shiitake mushrooms and snake beans
If using dried mushrooms, place them into a small pot and just cover with water. Bring to the simmer and cook for 4 to 5 minutes. Drain, cool and squeeze out any excess liquid, Remove the stems and discard, then slice the caps. If using fresh shiitakes, simply remove the stems and discard, then slice. Slice the green onions into 1 cm lengths.
Heat a wok to medium heat then add 1/3 of the oil. Add the beans and stir fry for a minute or so. Add the chicken and stir, cooking until it is almost cooked through. Remove and set aside. This pre-cooking of ingredients is used for those that won’t cook through in the brief time that the rice is cooked, such as pork, beef, raw seafood and the like. Use your discretion when substituting.
Wipe out the wok, and heat to medium-high. Add the remaining oil, then the chilli paste and garlic and cook for a minute or so, stirring constantly so it doesn’t burn. Crack the egg, and then pour into the wok as you would for sunny side up. Cook for roughly 30 seconds without stirring, allowing the white set a bit, then vigorously stir the egg so it scrambles. Immediately add the rice and gently break it apart, stirring so each grain is coated in the egg and spice mix. Add the chicken, beans and mushrooms and stir fry for 90 seconds. Add the green onions, Golden Mountain Sauce, oyster sauce and sugar then stir well.
Tip the rice out onto a waiting plate and scatter with the bean sprouts, chilli (if using) and basil leaves. Place the lime wedge alongside and serve immediately with a fork. Thais always eat their fried rice (and in fact most dishes) with a fork.
Fried rice with prawns, bean curd and pineapple
In a mortar and pestle grind the star anise to a fine powder. Add the coriander paste, shrimp paste and ginger and grind to a smooth paste.
Heat a wok to medium-high, add the oil, then fry the paste for 30 seconds or so – until it smells nicely fragrant. Stir constantly to prevent burning. Crack the egg, and then pour into the wok as you would for sunny side up. Cook for roughly 30 seconds without stirring allowing the white set a bit, then vigorously stir the egg so it scrambles. Immediately add the rice, and gently break it apart, stirring so each grain is coated in the egg and spice mix. Add the prawns, bean curd and pineapple, stir well and cook for a further 60 seconds. Add the fish sauce and sugar, stir well, then tip onto a waiting plate. Lay the slices of tomato around the rice, then scatter the top with the coriander leaves, peanuts and white pepper. Place the lemon wedge on the side and serve immediately.