There are many ways to cook fried rice, and some are more correct than others. Restaurant-quality fried rice is fluffy, crisp, and savory with a hint of wok-fired smokiness (referred to as wok hei, or air of wok) that comes from the incredibly high output burners of professional Chinese kitchens. Short of rigging up a wok station with an outdoor turkey fryer, home cooks do not have access to that amount of raw power. Nevertheless, the premise behind cooking over high heat is to eliminate as much moisture from the final product as possible, and this can be achieved in other ways.
The first is the advice that is parroted ad nauseum in every fried rice discussion, which is to use day-old rice that has had time to dry out in the refrigerator overnight. This is a good practice and if possible, the rice should be broken up with a wooden spoon and laid out on a baking sheet to encourage additional drying. If day-old rice is not available, rice that has been cooked with a less water than normal is also acceptable.
The second strategy addresses the heat output limit of domestic burners. If the limiting factor in cooking fried rice is the maximum BTU rating of a typical gas or electric range, then it follows that most or all of that heat should go towards the most important step, which is to stir-fry the rice. So, the recommendation here is to cook most components of the dish, such as the egg and in this recipe, the crispy squid tentacles, separately. It is only until the rice is sufficiently crisped that these ingredients are folded into the wok. This is more involved than the typical college student one-skillet recipe, but the differences are noticeable.
One of the most egregious offenses in fried rice making is a fundamental misunderstanding of where flavor comes from. You can identify the culprits by their dark brown color, giving away the fact that it is drenched in soy sauce. Yangzhou fried rice, the fried rice most commonly served at Chinese restaurants (and in my opinion, the superior fried rice), is not brown but mostly white with a hint of yellow. The dominant source of flavor comes from the char siu, Cantonese roasted pork, or lap cheong, Chinese sausage, that forms the sweet and savory basis of the dish. Soy sauce, or preferably, fish sauce, is used only in minute amounts at the very end of cooking for an extra hint of saltiness. The use of cured or roasted meats to flavor dishes is a consistent practice in Chinese cuisine, whether it is dried shrimp in lo bak gao (steamed turnip cake), salted duck egg in rice porridge, or salted cod in other variations of fried rice.
This recipe is similar in spirit to Yangzhou fried rice, but with the addition of squid tentacles that are dusted in flour and deep fried. Squid tentacles have the same subtle, pelagic sweetness of shrimp, but with a much more satisfying texture, especially when crisped in the fryer. Shrimp can also be used, as it traditionally is in Yangzhou fried rice, or you can opt to stir-fry the squid instead of deep frying.
Lap cheong is a sweet and savory smoked sausage, typically made with pork and chicken, that is popular in Southern China. Similar to the Italian method of rendering pancetta for ragù alla bolognese, the lap cheong is cooked under low heat for 10-15 minutes to render out its flavorful fat, which is then used as a cooking oil to stir-fry the rice. After the rice is tossed with the lap cheong over high heat, it is seasoned with salt, pepper, and fish sauce, and the cooked egg and fried squid are folded in with chopped scallions. Lap cheong can be found in most Asian grocery stores, or purchased online.
fried rice // lap cheong + crispy squid tentacles
- 4-6 cups of cooked white rice, preferably either day-old rice or freshly cooked using slightly less water
- 3 lap cheong, finely chopped
- 1 clove of garlic, minced
- 1 shallot or half a medium onion, finely chopped
- 1 bunch scallions, chopped
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- 4 eggs, beaten
Crispy squid tentacles:
- 8-10 pre-separated squid tentacles or 4-5 small whole squid. Pre-separated tentacles can be found frozen in many Asian grocery stores.
- 1 cup flour
- 1 tbsp white pepper
- 1 tbsp salt
- Cooking oil, for frying
The recommended workflow for this recipe is to flour the squid and fry the egg while rendering the lap cheong fat, stir-fry the rice, quickly deep fry the squid, and then top with the fried squid right before serving.
The day before cooking, prepare 4-6 cups of cooked rice and set aside in the refrigerator. If possible, break the rice apart with a wooden spoon and spread on a large baking sheet to facilitate the drying process.
If using whole squid, clean the squid under running water by slowly pulling the head out and removing the clear, hard cuttlebone along with any remaining entrails. Slice the head just anterior to the eyes to yield a piece of squid with all of the tentacles attached. Discard the entrails, cuttlebones, and eyes and slice the bodies into 2-3″ bite-size chunks. If using pre-separated tentacles, rinse them under cold water and remove the two longer tentacles and any remaining parts of the squid that are hard to the touch.
Mix 1 tbsp of salt and 1 tbsp of white or black pepper with 1 cup all-purpose flour. Dry the squid with paper towels, dredge them in the flour mixture, and set aside. It is important to dry the squid out as much as possible with multiple rounds of paper towels to ensure that they do not get soggy.
In a separate frying pan, fry the beaten eggs over medium heat until they are mostly done – do not overcook. Set aside in a bowl. This step can be done at any point prior to cooking the rice.
Meanwhile, add 3 finely chopped lap cheong sausages and chopped shallot or onion to the wok under low heat. Render the fat for about 10-15 minutes – this can be done while preparing the squid and frying the egg. Near the end of the render, toss in 1 clove of minced garlic and cook for 1-2 minutes. Raise the heat to high and quickly stir in 4-6 cups of cooked, dried white rice. use two wooden spoons to toss the rice and break up any clumps, seasoning to taste with salt, and white pepper, and fish sauce. After the rice is heated through, add the cooked egg, using the wooden spoons to break it up and stir it into the rice.
Turn off the heat to the wok, and heat 2″ of oil in a small pot until the flour sizzles when tossed in. Deep fry the squid until crisped, about 1 minute, and set aside on a drying rack or paper towels. Turn the heat back on for the wok and stir in the chopped scallions. Top the fried rice with the fried squid, season with additional salt and pepper, and serve.