Humble rice is nice with everything

Li Anlan
Rice, rice, rice, it's just impossible to get enough of this humble cereal grain.
Li Anlan

Rice, rice, rice, it’s just impossible to get enough of this humble cereal grain — simply imagine the great taste of crunchy rice crust toasted at the bottom of a clay pot rice dish that carries the flavorful sauce.

In China, rice is consumed from breakfast to dinner. As a staple dish, it goes well with all kinds of stir-fries, stews and soups — anything with sauce or stock that can infuse into the rice.

Rice is cooked with just water, and across Asia the mystery of adding the perfect amount of water to raw rice is simplified by measuring the water level to reach the first joint of the index finger, a trick passed on from one generation to another.

Rice can be cooked in a pot, steamer or the more convenient rice cookers. Different techniques can create slightly varied flavors and textures, and many consider the rice cooked in a high-quality clay pot over a fire to have the best flavor.

However, because rice has no significant flavor of its own yet an ability to absorb them, it’s often cooked with other vegetables and meats to elevate this simple staple.

Pork rib rice is an all-time popular dish that’s easy to cook and serve as a complete meal. The smaller pieces of pork short ribs are first marinated in a mixture of soy sauce, cooking wine, salt, ginger and scallion for an hour to remove the meaty smell and taste. Then vegetables such as potato, green pepper and shitake mushrooms are cut in smaller pieces for later use. The marinated pork ribs are then pan-fried gently and stewed with the vegetables with water and condiments. Then everything is moved into a rice cooker to cook with the rice.

Humble rice is nice with everything
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Rice can go with everything, from rich meats like pork ribs to vegetables like shitake mushrooms.

One-tomato rice is a famous recipe born in Chinese social media. It’s a one-step instruction to cook a pot of rice that’s extra flavorful and moist. Simply put a whole tomato in the middle of the rice in an electric rice cooker and season with salt and pepper. When the rice is cooked, take a large spatula and crush the tomato into sauce and then mix well with the rice. Vegetables such as carrots, shitake mushroom, corn and peas can be added in the beginning to make the meal whole.

Clay-pot rice is a signature Cantonese staple that cooks the rice in more rustic, individual clay pots and tops the staple with cured meats and sausages, some green vegetables and an egg. This rice dish must be served sizzling hot and the sauce is mixed in the last minute to boost the aroma. The best part of the clay-pot rice is usually the layer of rice crust at the bottom that’s crunchy and flavorful at the same time.

Cooking clay-pot rice at home can be tricky because rice can easily stick to the bottom of the pot and burn. A tip is to coat the inside of the pot evenly with some oil and then soak the rice in advance to reduce cooking time.

Humble rice is nice with everything
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Clay-pot rice with cured sausages and meats

Because the rice-to-water ratio is crucial in cooking delicious rice that’s neither too dry nor too soggy, it’s difficult to make one serving of rice, usually the amount cooked in regular rice cookers can serve four people easily, so what can be done with the leftover rice?

Stir-fried rice, the iconic Chinese staple enjoyed around the world, is made with leftover rice, preferably rice from the night before. The reason is that the leftover rice loses some of its moisture to become slightly harder and more elastic as well as not so sticky and starchy, which can be better in a hot wok. A standard of excellent stir-fried rice is how well each grain of rice stays separate.

As for eggs in stir-fried rice, there are two styles. One is to pour the egg wash over the rice and mix well so the rice turns a golden yellow, the other is to scramble the eggs first and then cook the rice with vegetables before adding the eggs back in.

Classic stir-fried rice is composed of leftover rice, eggs and finely chopped scallion. Vegetables such as sweet peas, finely cut carrot and corn kernels, meats such as sausage, ham and shrimp, are all excellent additions to make colorful stir-fried rice dishes.

Humble rice is nice with everything
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Stir-fried rice is an ideal way to make use of the leftover rice.

Soy sauce stir-fried rice is a more flavorful recipe loved by many. After cooking the eggs and mixing in the rice, a sauce made of light and dark soy sauce, sugar and white peppercorn powder is added and stirred until every bit of rice turns glossy brown. Similar to regular stir-fried rice, a handful of green scallions is sprinkled when served.

Pan-fried rice cakes are a simple breakfast dish that can be achieved with leftover rice. Simply mix finely chopped vegetables into the cold rice evenly and then shape into pancakes and fry with a little bit of oil in a non-stick pan until both sides are golden.

Rice crust is usually a thin layer of dehydrated rice that lies at the bottom of a pot of rice, and you can make more rice crust with leftover rice by pressing it between plastic wrap and cutting in square pieces before deep-frying in golden oil. The rice crusts can be eaten directly as a snack after sprinkling with salt and pepper, or serve with dishes with rich sauces so the crusts soak up the delicious flavors and soften a little.

Leftover rice can also be rolled in small balls and deep-fried until the outside becomes golden and crispy. The rice nuggets can be served with ketchup or spiced salt seasonings.

Humble rice is nice with everything
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Rice crust snack

Rice dishes on the go

As the Chinese food industry continues to innovate new concepts and products, instant meals are no longer a poor substitute for a home-cooked meal, but a fashionable and trendy dish that makes people happy.

Following the tremendous success of instant Sichuan hotpot — a packaged meal that produces a bowl of sizzling hotpot vegetables and meats in 15 minutes by adding just one bottle of water — rice dishes are also going down the route of being portable, sizzling and delicious.

Similar to instant hotpot, self-heating rice products feature a small heater pack consisting of quicklime, sodium carbonate, calcined diatomite, iron powder, aluminum powder, coke powder, activated carbon and salt can produce heat of up to 150 degrees Celsius and a steam temperature of 200 degrees in 3 to 5 seconds after wetting. It can maintain the high heat for 15-20 minutes and keep the food warm even longer.

The food chosen for these products are usually classic recipes turned instant, such as fatty pork belly meat with preserved vegetables, chicken drumstick with shitake mushrooms, potato and beef brisket stew, minced pork with sour green bean pickles and so on. The rice is usually processed to be cooked quickly using technologies such as freeze-drying that preserve the taste and texture as much as possible.

Clay pot rice is also available in instant style, there are usually two flavors that feature sweet Cantonese style and spicy Sichuan-style cured sausages. The key to instant clay pot rice products is also the secret sauces.

Instant rice dishes were launched as alternatives to takeout meals, but they’ve received mixed reviews on taobao.com. Some people described the products as “soft rice, lots of sausage and very aromatic,” while others say “the rice is not OK” and “wine flavor in sausage is too strong.”

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