Apr 8, 2022 Cheap Eats
Back when I started lending a hand to Metro’s annual Cheap Eats issue around a decade ago, I recall a judge’s meeting where the topic of fried rice was raised. Simon Wilson, editor at the time, said he didn’t think fried rice really counted as a dish to judge a kitchen on. I disagreed then and (sorry, Simon) still do — I reckon a good rendition of fried rice can absolutely show the merits of a kitchen.
For one thing, fried rice can be a meal in itself — starchy carbs, proteins, and vegetables all in attendance. I guess it’s partly for this reason that ‘hangover fried rice’ is a thing… but that’s dumbing it down; fried rice has a place on the non-booze-compromised table, too. Every bite can offer up a variety of tastes and textures.
Fried rice is a great introduction when it comes to exploring various cuisines. Think of nasi goreng, khao pad, chao fan, bokkeumbap, sinangag and arruz chaufa as dignitaries of their respective cuisines; bearing the touch of hallmark spice pastes, seasonings, aromatics and cooking techniques. Then there are the little additions to the dish — a fan of sliced cucumber, a sprinkle of bean sprouts or fried shallots, a plop of shrimpy sambal or crisp chilli oil. And the waste-free angle is also appealing — fried rice gives leftover rice and scraps a reason to live. I mean, I’m pretty sure restaurants prep ingredients for fried rice dishes separately rather than gathering scraps — but we can still admire the origins of the dish, said to have been born from the wok as a way to make use of day-old rice sometime around AD 600 in China, where wasting food was sensibly viewed as pretty stupid.
Even the most special of special versions won’t put the diner out of pocket too badly — you can get a piled-high dish of it for under $25 even at places that don’t generally meet the budgetary definition for Metro Eats consideration. Plenty of places on
our Eats list have a fried rice for under $15.
Seven or eight years ago there was a spot in Balmoral with Macanese influence in the menu and its fried rice was like a history lesson — chunks of bacalao (salted cod) rubbed shoulders with Macau-syle chorizo (a lap cheong/chorizo hybrid). At a breakfast pop-up a few years ago at Nanam, owner and chef Jessabel Granada served us sinangag, tuyo e kape — a favourite from her childhood on a mango farm in Batangas, Philippines — in which garlic fried rice is topped with cured fish, and alongside is a cup of strong, sweet coffee to pour over and stir through. I still think about that dish today — it was absolutely delicious. Look closer at the fried rice section of the menu in many Chinese restaurants and you’ll see regional touches: Hunan smoked pork belly or beef, Fujian (a.k.a. Hokkien, or Taiwanese) fried rice smothered in comforting gravy, or the kick of Sichuan doubanjiang. I guess my point here is that you don’t have to see fried rice as an afterthought — it can be a perfect expression of a place and its history.
Perhaps no version of fried rice is as jauntily adorned as Indonesian mee goreng. Bali Nights’ nasi goreng tek tek ($18.50) is redolent with Chef Wawan’s mother sauce, kecap manis, and the smoky flavour from the hot wok. Filled with veg and slices of chicken, it also comes with two sate ayam (marinated grilled chicken skewers), a fried egg, fiery raw chilli sambal, pickles, and crisp prawn crackers. Among what co-owner Adriana Ferdian explains are more than 100 ‘official’ versions of fried rice throughout the archipelago, nasi goreng tek tek is “just your friendly neighbourhood nasi goreng”, as sold by street vendors. “The ‘tek tek’”, explains Ferdian, “comes from the noise the artistes make by banging their spatulas on the wok, letting the people in houses know they’re outside and ready to assist with their cravings.” It’s also worth noting that Bali Nights’ vegan nasi goreng is no poor cousin — big portions of both tofu and tempeh make up the protein quota.
Tom Yum Eden
The seafood fried rice ($24.50) at Tom Yum Eden is loaded with kai moana, and it’s no rubbery disappointment — juicy prawns, mussels, scallops (with the roe on, thanks) and squid. The pineapple mentioned on the menu was MIA in my order, but there were plenty of chunks of broccoli, carrot and wedges of tomato to make up for it, and a balanced seasoning of fish sauce, stock and soy sauce that’s the signature of a good khao pad.
Sometimes you want a big pile of yang chow fried rice. Named for the city of Yangzhou, which some say is where fried rice originated, it’s light on seasoning but should be bursting with prawns, char siu and diced vegetables. The menu at Golden Garden Restaurant in Balmoral is generally better suited to groups, in order to share the large and higher-priced dishes, but still, a big pile of yang chow fried rice there costs just $14. The rice has that slight stickiness that makes it perfect for shovelling into your mouth in generous piles using chopsticks, and is best enjoyed with a dollop of crisp chilli oil on top.