Fried Rice Enlightenment

A tale of madness, pickled mustard greens, and productivity-enhancing Confucian to do lists. Recipe included.

How deep is my love for fried rice? Let me count the ways. I love fried rice for its salty umami egginess. I love it for its utilitarian functionality as a consolidator of leftovers and stray veggies. I love it for its economic frugality.

Fried rice will get you through hard times.  One of its few drawbacks is structural: to make it as often as I would like, I need to have a reliable supply of old cooked rice available. Making a fresh batch of rice solely for the purpose of making fried rice induces a vague sense of guilt, like I'm breaking the rules.

A few years ago, I solved this conundrum by routinely making more rice than necessary whenever I stir-fried some Sichuan. Not only did this establish a pipeline of surplus pre-cooked rice but it also made me feel like a filial son. My mother, the neuroscientist, drummed into me at a very early age the importance of using one's frontal lobes. In her view, regular exercise of the part of the brain that evolved to anticipate the future and make plans is crucial to the successful navigation of a perilous world.

But there's a funny little thing about frontal lobes -- once you start using them it's hard to stop. Making extra rice every time I threw down some mapo doufu turned out to be a gateway drug. Next came extra leftovers. I started planning the weekly menu with an eye to what would work best for future batches of fried rice.

I won't lie: the romance of the hallowed family tradition of Sunday roast chicken dinner took a hit when I started to see it as little more than an opportunity for resource extraction. But in those early, heady days, I shrugged off such sentimental qualms. I was focused on the big picture. I was building an algorithm for the production of perfect fried rice.

The first indication that I had entered perilous territory came on the night, not so long ago, when I caught myself wincing inside as my son reached for a second helping of chicken. Hey, slow down, I need that for later!

That was unseemly.

But I knew I had truly lost my way when, while staring into the void of an empty refrigerator, I contemplated throwing a blow-out Sichuan dinner party just so I could have some ultra-fancy fried rice building blocks to play around with. I even started mulling over which guests would be likely to contribute high-fried-rice-value dishes of their own.

(Careful readers will note that the previous paragraph was written shortly before plague swept the land and shelter-in-place orders rendered "dinner parties" as quaint and archaic as horse-drawn buggies and rotary-dial phones. It is preserved here, unaltered, for purposes of historical authenticity.)

Whoa. As I observed my own thought process, I started to wonder. Had I crossed a line? This was more than mere incentivized menu-tinkering. This was comprehensive social engineering for the purpose of building a robust fried rice supply chain. This was... nuts?

Second, third, and fourth thoughts swooped in. Could I afford to throw a dinner party? My regular freelance outlets were going belly up at a terrifying rate. Shouldn't my priority be building up cash reserves instead of a stockpile of boutique leftovers? The consideration of my monetary situation distracted me into thinking, for the umpteenth time, that I should finally pull the trigger on my newsletter pay-wall.

Hey! Maybe writing a story about fried rice (with a recipe!) would be a clever (and potentially viral (in a good way)) strategy for kicking off the brave new crowd-funding era. I nodded craftily to myself.  Everybody loves a good fried rice recipe...

My refrigerator door started beeping. I shook myself out of delirium. My frontal lobes were over-heating. There were too many variables to consider.

I decided I had no choice but to do what I always do when faced with existential doubt, uncertainty, and an empty checking account.

Start a new to do list. And possibly a spreadsheet.

But as soon as I closed the refrigerator door, the full implications of my recklessness hit me. What was I thinking?

Fried rice should never be something you plan in advance! The whole point of fried rice is that it emerges naturally and spontaneously of its own self from the unknowable workings of the universe. It is not architected; it is scrounged. It is not commanded; it flows.

There is no algorithm. The to do list for fried rice cannot be written!

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People often ask me for my fried rice recipe. In the past, I have found it difficult to respond. Consider, for example, a partial list of the ingredients that went into two magnificent fried rices I conjured up earlier this year.

Leftover red-cooked pork belly made to perfection by a co-host of my New Year's Eve Sichuan dinner party.

Home-made kimchi that materialized in in my refrigerator after my last summer party.

A slightly soggy jalapeño pepper that was supposed to go into a chana masala my daughter made for dinner before she moved to New York.

A few tablespoons of leftover black bean chicken (a modified Fuchsia Dunlop recipe) and pork in the style of fish (classic Mrs Chiang).

A couple of handfuls of cilantro I found in the vegetable drawer.

A dollop of chili paste -- itself a consolidation of two versions of my own home-made paste (from Carolyn Phillips' recipe for Guizhou ciba chili paste) mixed with the dregs of a chili crisp concocted by a friend.

This is not the stuff of recipes! The fried rice concoctions that resulted from combinations of these ingredients were sui generis; never to be repeated again, unique manifestations of the universe at a given point in time. If Heraclitus was Chinese, surely he would have made this clear: no one ever sticks their chopsticks into the same fried rice twice.

Which is how it should be, right? When one embarks on a journey without knowing the endpoint, there is always a chance for unpredictable revelation. This is just as true when I sit down to write as it is when I heft my cleaver over the chopping block. As a cook, fried rice helped me along the way to true culinary creativity because the necessity of negotiating uncertainty without a safety net is baked into the process. Just start, and see where you end up. Don't over-think it. Channel your cicada-catcher.

But here's the problem. I am a chronic over-thinker. To maximize productivity I keep myself in a state of constant self-surveillance and micro-management. To do lists and spreadsheets are my magic weapons; the propelling force in how I organize my career, preserve my health, conduct research and trick myself out of the doldrums and into productivity. I time myself -- every day -- on how long I can last before checking Twitter. I can tell you exactly how many weeks it's been since I last ate a French fry. I have a quarterly budget for how much I am allowed to spend on cannabis. I have so many different to do lists that a regularly occurring item on my to do lists is organize your fucking to do lists. I am so embarrassed by the multitude of my color-coded lists that I hide them when company comes to visit. My to do lists are recursive, exponential, cryptic, incantatory and for my eyes alone. Before I die, I must remember to burn them all.

But surely Zhuangzi did not weigh himself down with to-do lists? Or Li Bai or Cook Ding? After careful examination, my way of life makes no sense! Even as I am intoxicated (to the point of evangelization) by Daoist values of spontaneity and intuition I continue to operate in real time according to Excel formulas dating back decades and arcane scribbles on a yellow legal note pad. 

The question of whether this contradiction is, at best, hypocritical, or at worst, sheer madness, is not a new one for me. I've wrestled with it before. Usually after a little wallowing, I just start a new to do list and go about my day. A career as a freelance writer only has so much room for existential malingering.  

But I may have made a strategic error when I conceived the idea of writing a story about the contradictions implicit in consciously organizing every aspect of my life so as to maximize fried rice perfection. It was time to put up or shut up. My friends want my recipe for fried rice. My philosophy says such a thing is impossible. My actual daily actions suggest I believe otherwise.

To do list item number one: figure this out.

In the second volume of Joseph Needham's Science and Civilization in China, the great scholar unloads some blunt opinions on the two most famous schools of Chinese thought.

"The Confucian... social-ethical thought-complex was masculine, managing, hard, dominating, aggressive, rational... -- the Daoists broke with it radically and completely by emphasizing all that was feminine, tolerant, yielding, permissive, withdrawing, mystical and receptive."

Fully understanding the yin-yang context for this quote requires more of a deep dive into "the Needham question" of why China didn't have an Industrial Revolution than would neatly fit into an essay about fried rice. Briefly put, Needham blamed Confucianism's excessive focus on properly organizing human relationships for repressing (or ignoring) the impulse to scientific inquiry. But Needham lauded Daoism for nurturing empirical investigations into nature that profoundly shaped the vast scientific and technological achievements of ancient Chinese civilization.

I will revisit this topic in the future. For now, the key point is that similar stark and negative appraisals of Confucian philosophy have long resonated with me, in part because of the influence of my first wife, a Taiwanese woman named Glenda who hated Confucius with a passion. Glenda held Confucius personally responsible for Chinese society's oppressive legacy of patriarchal authority.

On our first night together, Glenda introduced me to philosophical Daoism.

Let me tell you about Zhuangzi, she said, and then recounted the story of Zhuangzi and Huizi gazing at fish in a stream.

The fish are so happy, said Zhuangzi.

How do you know the fish are happy, said Huizi. You are not a fish.

How do you know I don't know, said Zhuangzi. You are not me.

I fell hard for Glenda and her favorite Daoist. From that point on I associated Confucius with authoritarian oppressors like the KMT and CCP, while revering Zhuangzi as a free-thinking trouble-maker and intellectual bomb-thrower, the antidote to despots everywhere.

The problem is, when I settle down in front of my to-do lists and spread-sheets, I don't feel very Daoist. I feel like the patriarch of my domain, an emperor intent on exerting despotic control over every aspect of my personal society. I strive to arrange in order what I eat, what I spend, how I exercise, and who I socialize with for the achievement of perfect harmony. I am nothing at all like the minnows in the stream, zigging and zagging in effortless tune with the currents of the depths, passing on words of power and singing the true Dao.

But when I ride my bike, or toss garlic and ginger in the wok, or engage in the revelatory mysteries of the writing process, or host a dinner-party, I do feel connected to the unknowable. It's no coincidence that during all those endeavors my to do lists are hidden away or forgotten. That's when I am adjusting unthinkingly to the rushing flow. That's when I am dancing in the bamboo grove.  

So how does that square, this impulse to control everything while in constant pursuit of the uncontrollable?

I usually scoff at the notion of "writer's block." But when I discovered that my attempt to riff on fried rice was leading me to seriously question my own sanity I lost some of my enthusiasm for hitting the publish button.

I decided I needed to leave the house.  I closed my laptop and hopped on my bike. I headed over to the UC Berkeley campus to attend a presentation by the Chinese historian Michael Nylan on her new translation of The Art of War.

Nylan is a well-regarded specialist in the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.). Her name first came to my attention earlier this year as I worked my way through an amazing essay she wrote 20 years ago, The Legacy of the Chengdu Plain. Her scholarship is formidable but her insights always seem connected to the present moment.

Her lecture seemed like an excellent distraction. I certainly was not expecting her to resolve my fried rice dilemma.

But there it was. In the middle of a wide-ranging presentation that included a primer in the subtleties of classical Chinese, an analysis of The Art of War as a profoundly pacifist work, and a riff on how "manuscript culture" in ancient China was a considerably more collectively-produced enterprise than our notions of the individual authority of "Laozi" or "Sunzi" or "Zhuangzi" or "Confucius" might suggest, Nylan casually dismissed Needham-esque efforts to position Chinese schools of thought in opposition to each other.

The famous "hundred schools of thought" that flourished during the Warring States Era shared a set of commonalities, she argued, not the least of which was a kind of situational, flexible ethics of engagement with the world, a whatever works approach to life that Nylan claims both "Confucians" and "Daoists" subscribed to.

There was real truth, she said, to the common saying that one could be a Confucian in the office, and a Daoist at home (or a Confucian during the day, and a Daoist at night.) We should avoid the impulse, common both to Victorian missionaries and free-thinking socialists like Needham, to inscribe things, people, or philosophies with restrictive labels. Like classical Chinese, in which any character can be a verb, noun, or adjective depending on the context in which it is deployed, life is slippery and multifarious.

Life is kind of like fried rice. We make it up as we go along, every day.

Listening to Nylan, I saw a way out of my box canyon. Instead of butting my head against the horns of malevolent contradiction, I needed to embrace both the thesis and the antithesis. I need to be a Confucian when organizing logistics and building a bank account, and a Daoist when the time arrives for creative expression.

My lists and spread-sheets are tactics that put me in the proper position for grabbing at epiphanies and sneaking up on catharsis, for dinner party drama and bike rides in the hills, for the moment when the oil starts smoking and the smoke alarm starts pealing.

Let's bring it all back home. After years of struggling to cook fried rice that tasted how I remembered it from my Taiwan days, I finally encountered Taylor Holliday's excellent Chengdu Fried Rice recipe, which recommends adding a few tablespoons of a particular brand of Sichuan pickled mustard greens -- Suimi yacai.

It turns out that Suimi yacai gives fried rice precisely the umami kick that I'd been missing. But even in the San Francisco Bay Area, it's a hard ingredient to find on the shelves of 99 Ranch or your local Chinatown grocery outlet.

So every few months I have to order some online. Because woe betide me if on that day when the contents of the refrigerator demand fried rice, my larder is bare of yacai.

You better believe that ordering yacai is now something that regularly appears on my to do lists, just as the budget for how many special Sichuan ingredients I am allowed to purchase per month is also a line item in one of my budgeting spreadsheets. When reaching for the ineffable, I need to be armed with pickled mustard greens.

I'm ready to hit the publish button. I've come to terms with my wackiness. It's OK that the stringencies of logistical support bring out the frontal-lobe focused Confucian in me. Because once I start turning up the heat and engage in the alchemy of elixir production, I'm all Daoist.

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And yes, there's a recipe.

RECIPE FOR THE FRIED RICE I MADE LAST WEEK

INGREDIENTS

·      6 eggs (well-mixed)

·      6 cloves of garlic, minced

·      Equivalent amount of ginger, minced

·      4 scallions thinly sliced (both white and green parts)

·      1 orange bell pepper, 1 yellow bell pepper, three Fresno peppers, seeded, sliced into shreds.

·      1-2 tablespoons hot chili oil

·      1-2 tablespoons of Pixian Doubanjiang (broad bean chili paste)

·      4 tablespoons Suimi yacai

·      2 cups leftover jasmine rice

·      2 cups leftover wild rice

·      1 medium-sized onion, sliced thinly and then sauted until nicely caramelized (about twenty minutes).

·      1/2 pound pork belly (boiled for 20 minutes, chilled, thinly sliced, and then slowly fried over a moderate flame until slightly crisp, about 20 minutes)

·      peanut oil

·      2 tablespoons chicken broth

COOKING

1) Pour two tablespoons of oil into wok over medium-high heat. Stir-fry eggs until about 80 percent cooked. Remove from heat. Wipe wok clean.

2) Pour four tablespoons of oil in wok over high heat. Quickly add garlic, ginger, hot chili oil, and broad-bean chili paste. Stir fry 45 seconds -- don't let the garlic and ginger start to burn.

3) Add bell pepper and hot pepper shreds. Stir-fry for 90 seconds.

4) Add pork belly and sautéd onions. Stir-fry until warmed up.

5) Add chopped scallions and Suimi yacai. Stir thoroughly.

6)  Add rice. Break up large chunks with your spatula. Thoroughly mix with all other ingredients. Keep the rice moving, you want it to crisp up slightly but not stick to the wok and dry out. If it seems too dry, you can add a couple of tablespoons of chicken broth. But don't let it get too soggy. After a couple of minutes, stir in the eggs.

7. Stick a fork in it and take a taste. If it's delicious, it's done. If it's not delicious, you are out of your mind, because it's going to be totally delicious.

NOTES:

1) This recipe produced a LOT of fried rice. I had to break out my extra-large wok to handle everything conveniently. Since most home kitchens are not equipped with extra-large woks, you might be advised to proportionally reduce the ingredients.

2) I added pork belly to this version of fried rice because I happened to have some pork belly that had already been boiled lolling about in my freezer. Normally, I would regard going to the effort of prepping twice-cooked pork belly for fried rice as overkill. A more-than-adequate substitute that is far less time-consuming to prepare would be some fried pancetta or nice fatty bacon chopped up into small chunks. This somewhat defeats the purpose of economically consuming refrigerator leftovers, but hey, remember, there are no rules. Only suggestions.

3) And of course, this is just the version I made last week. The fried rice that I made the week before that included shredded roast chicken instead of pork belly and minced "tree ears" instead of sautéd onions. If there is leftover cilantro in your vegetable drawer, chop it up and throw it in. Don't be shy!

4) Good luck!