I wanted to find a nice image for you here, but fried rice isn’t the most photogenic dish. Restaurants can garnish fried rice with basil or cucumbers or even flower-cut carrots, but really, garnishes aren’t the point with fried rice. Which is part of my point here.
When Shauna asked us to fill in the title sentence on Twitter, I first thought of this: “Cooking became more fun when I realized that recipes (for cooking, not baking) were suggestions.” I think that’s still true of my cooking now. I’ll substitute carrots for red peppers, delete the fennel, revise the asparagus roasting time, add mirin or olive oil or brown sugar where necessary. But I didn’t have a specific moment, or month, or even year to attach to that philosophy.
My next response, which I didn’t post, was “when I learned to trust my nose and my palate.” And the moment came, complete with a dish: fried rice.
As a college student, my friend C came to visit me in my second post-dorm apartment: a two-bedroom apartment on Arch Street in Berkeley. The apartment, come to think of it, reminds me a lot of UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall, and, probably not so coincidentally, of my house now. All of these spaces have white walls with wood-rimmed windows, and hardwood floors. My apartment was a 1940s converted townhouse. A huge plus: it was half a block from campus, on the quieter north side. A huge minus: it had a radiator that clanked in the morning like a drunken prisoner. But it had a lot of natural light, and a galley kitchen.
In that kitchen, my dear friend M and I made dozens of cookies and batches of mochi, usually after midnight Safeway runs. Late night beer runs? Not so much. Brown sugar and chocolate chip emergencies? You bet. And I made a lot of fried rice.
The fried rice I remember making when my friend C came to visit is no version of “authentic” fried rice that I can think of. (Then again, I’m not sure that fried rice has an authentic history or one specific ethnicity. Chinese? Thai? Filipino? Malaysian? I’ve found fried rice at all of these restaurants. Surely, someone’s done a culinary history of fried rice. If not, I call dibs on writing one.) Anyway, I remember adding the following ingredients to the skillet:
- Half a roughly chopped onion
- A fresh garlic clove, minced
- Canola oil
- Leftover cooked white rice
- Half a package of frozen mixed vegetables
- Leftover chicken sausage, chopped up
- Italian seasoning
- Finely grated cheese, maybe Asiago or Parmesan
I was a bit nervous talking to this friend, I remember, so I kept looking in the fridge and pantry, adding more things. The paprika I remember adding towards the end, a random note of inspiration to sweeten the rice a bit and enhance the browning.
As I kept adding things to the skillet, the conversation loosened up, or maybe I loosened up. I wasn’t sure how the rice, or the conversation, or even the friendship, was going to turn out. But I remember turning away from the stove, wooden spoon in hand, for minutes at a time, so I could talk to my friend.
When I came back from these minutes, I’d stir. Each time, a bit more of the rice had developed that crunchy crust which makes the best fried rice. The Spanish call it socarrat; the Japanese call it okoge. The rice, and the vegetables, and even the onions and sausage, had caramelized a bit. I’d stir the rice, turn around and talk, come back and stir. It took a long time for fried rice, maybe even half an hour. But the rice, and the conversation, and the visit, were eventually pretty good. Both the friend and the rice were forgiving.
Most importantly, I became more comfortable in the kitchen that day. I began with one of the most familiar acts of cooking I knew and revered. I used vibrant ingredients that I already had in my pantry. I played with one of the ingredients central to my cooking soul. I wasn’t worried about how the rice would look when I dished it up. I wasn’t following anyone’s recipe. I was just tasting the dish in my head: trusting my palate and offering the results to someone else.
Not a bad way to cook, or write, or even live.
P.S. This is another community blog post; you can check Shauna’s roundup post for other online responses in the next day or two. If you’re on Twitter, you can search for #cookingbecamefun.
P.P.S. This week on the blog: more about the book project, and, by request (!), farmer’s markets.