As part of a college creative writing assignment, I along with my co-writer Andrea Tan) drew inspiration from Ligayan Mishan and NYTimes to pen a descriptive piece on … fried rice.
There are many rules in the kitchen, but none speaks louder than the unspoken adage: the simpler the dish, the more it demands from the chef. Every step counts in the making of a simple dish, even the smallest ones — like the pre-heating of an unoiled wok at most Chinese restaurants. A simple dish, when prepared to perfection, is heartwarming and commands the attention of the senses. It’s a sweeping statement, but it’s also a feat few can accomplish. And right now, I am seated at Granny’s Bar, staring in awe at the glistening golden rubble right in front of me.
I am first barraged by its smell. A fragrance that interlaces smoke, charred rice and caramelised sugar together. A flavour before flavour, the scent (or wok hei in the Southeast Asian gastronomy lexicon) alone is enough to make you thirst. What followed were the colours. A warm glistening gold with sparse pops of green and red, and white from the wafting smoke. It’s enticing to say the least, but what’s even more captivating was the way Granny Xu, the owner, prepared it in the kitchen.
There, the wok becomes an apocalyptic inferno that shrieks like a jet engine. It’s well-oiled and smoking. And yet, Granny Xu continues to let it sit. She tells me, eyes unremoved from the wok, “Heat is key.” Then she cracks two eggs over the surface to absorb some of the oil, before allowing the greens and aromatics — sliced scallions, shredded lettuce, diced garlic and green pea — to soften and brown. Fried rice is a dish of patience, she tells me, again her eyes are fixated on the wok. And to prove her point, she adds the quintessential, rice organically grown and imported from Alishan, spreads it across the wok, and lets it sit.
In my years scouring food bites and following leads around the world, I’ve come to learn that freshly steamed rice that’s still moist won’t do in the making of a fried rice. The better alternative is often its leftover variant (Hence the term, “glorified leftovers”). At Granny’s Bar’s, the 67-year-old prepares the rice on the same day, but with less water. The wok continues to smoke and the rice, along with the other ingredients, didn’t take long to crackle. By now, the nutty scent of wok hei has already wafted around the room and yet, Granny Xu is far from done. She adds the rest of the ingredients — diced bacon and shrimp — and a nostalgic scene starts to unfold. Granny Xu turns up the heat on the wok, put in a pinch of salt and a dash of white pepper, and begins tossing. The burner continues to shriek, the smoke continues to billow and Granny Xu’s skillful manoeuvre of the ladle produces the iconic clanging of wok in a Chinese kitchen. I am hungry and yet equally antsy. I want to help out, much like how I did whenever I was in my mother’s kitchen. That’s when I realised Granny Xu reminded me of my mother.
In the hands of the unskilled, the rice could wind up brittle. In Granny Xu’s, the grain becomes wonderfully textured, crunchy yet fluffy. On the palate, the flavours are loud. The rice has taken over the flavours of the ingredients that preceded it. The star of the dish lies in the eggs. They coat the rice, tinting it yellow and imbuing it with deep flavours while affording the dish the ever-indulgent eggy texture. The bacon, with its brawniness, does not overwhelm the rice and the greens, slightly wilted from the heat, help to conjure up a refreshing aftertaste. There is no sauce in the making of the dish. Granny Xu remains adamant about it. “It makes it wet and too salty,” she explains, noting the dish’s salty profile stems from the diced bacon.
At Granny’s Bar, the fried rice is a decadent construct. It is meant to be consumed gratefully and quickly, often without time for customers to register its taste. Or as Granny Xu tells me after my visit, “This meal is a simple affair.”