Vegetable fried rice is a very versatile dish made by quickly frying rice and a medley of vegetables together in a skillet or wok. The preparation has its roots in Chinese cuisine but is popular in most parts of the world. It can be made as a gourmet dish or can be used as a means of creatively reviving leftovers. The staple ingredients are rice and vegetables; beyond that, and even within that, the cook has sole discretion.
There are two primary ways of making vegetable fried rice. The first and most traditional requires steamed rice, usually at least a day old. It is also possible to make the dish with raw rice grains, frying them in oil until they pop, then reconstituting with water or broth. The latter method is mostly an innovation by non-Chinese cooks, particularly those in North American and European countries where converted rice and so-called “instant rice” are popular.
Fried rice is an economical way of using up leftovers, particularly in cultures where rice is a dietary staple. It is also a very simple Chinese dish, and can be a good introduction to Chinese cooking for the novice chef. Vegetable fried rice can be prepared as a gourmet entree, particularly when paired with exotic or lavish ingredients. It can also be a casual snack, and is a Chinese take-out favorite around the world.
Aside from rice, vegetable fried rice ingredients are very malleable. Almost any kind of vegetable can be used. The flexibility of the dish is one of the reasons why it is so popular in so many places. It lends itself well to any vegetables that happen to be on hand.
Vegetable fried rice is truly a one-dish meal in most preparations. The central cookware is a wok or heavy skillet. Under the traditional method, cooks begin by heating oil or butter, then adding the vegetables. Vegetables are usually used raw, though they are often marinated or combined with a flavorful sauce before cooking.
Once the firmest of the veggies has softened, the rice is scooped in, often with a bit more oil. The cook must quickly move the rice around with a spatula so as to incorporate it with the vegetables and any sauce. Heat is usually increased at this point, and the rice fries, soaking in the flavors of the vegetables and any added spices.
The process is slightly different when starting with uncooked grains. Oil must still be heated in the skillet, but the grains are added once it gets hot. Cooks must vigorously stir the grains to keep them from burning, and wait for them to “pop” — that is, to bloat with the heat and become opaque. Once this happens, cooks typically add a measured amount of water, then cover the pan and reduce the heat. When the rice has reconstituted and grown fluffy, the heat is again increased and the vegetables added in.
One of the most common additions to any vegetable fried rice preparation is egg. Usually, the egg is cracked directly into the skillet with the other ingredients, then stirred vigorously to cook and incorporate it. Vegetable fried rice with egg is a popular vegetarian dish, as the egg lends protein and substance.
Many different cultures have adopted the basic tenets of fried rice and made it theirs. Indian vegetable fried rice is one example. An Indian preparation typically uses basmati or jasmine rice, and incorporates tomatoes, onions, and garlic as the main ingredients. Thai fried rice is similar, often using local ingredients and earthy, long-grain rice.