During lunch break at my primary school, an old lady sat under a tamarind tree selling fried rice. She scooped it up with a ladle made from coconut shell, placed it on a piece of bright green banana leaf, folded it swiftly but beautifully and handed to whoever paid 1 baht (~3cents). There was always a crowd of children around her chirping their orders and handing over their coins. By the end of that hour her pot of rice would be scraped empty and she packed up her wares with a broad toothless smile and walked away.
My friends brought their rice over to where I ate the lunch my mother packed for me every day. Mine was often leftovers from dinner the previous day or a hard-boiled egg over rice with sauce. My friends’ lunch of fried rice was always bright red with a few pieces of sliced omelet on top. They devoured their lunch while I carefully and slowly picked at my food. For the rest of the afternoon I would dream of how good my friends’ fried rice looked and how delicious it must have tasted.
Each morning when I took vegetables to the market, after spreading out the bright blue plastic cloth on the ground, I carefully arranged the various vegetables out to sell. My mother had bunched them up the night before, tied each with a ribbon of bamboo that she had whittled herself. I was taught to arrange the vegetables in ways similar to arranging flowers. Mustard greens with the plump stems and deep green leaves were the most expensive. They were placed near the front. We were known to be the preferred grower for these versatile greens. Most people bought them to pickle or dry in the sun. Pea tops and other delicate leafy greens surrounded the mustard greens for contrast. I loved to arrange the cucumbers in a sunburst design. This was one of the defining features of my stall as other sellers piled them up in a mound. In a sunburst arrangement customers could choose their cucumber without disturbing the display.
The best seller was a combo bunch half of spring onions and half of coriander (cilantro). Almost all of Northern Thai dishes call for these two herbs, so every household would buy one. My mother would give me 5 -10 bunches of each vegetable to sell. I never sold out but could always count on selling all the spring onion and coriander bunches. I would give them prime location, front and center.
On this particular morning as I laid out the spring onion and coriander bunches, I decided to make 11 bunches out of the 10 my mother prepared for me. If they all sold I would keep 1 baht for myself. I carefully untied all the bunches, rearranged them all and made 11 bunches from the original 10. There were only 10 bamboo ties so I had to split one into two. My bunching skills were nowhere near the perfection that my mother achieved, but I did my best. Unfortunately, I only sold 5 bunches that day. Disappointed and sad, I packed up when it was time to go home and get ready to go to school.
When school was over and I came home, my mother was preparing the evening meal. My job was to wash all the meat and vegetables for her and get out her favorite sharp knife and chopping board. My mother cooked effortlessly, easily and fast. In no time dinner was on the table and my next job was to get the vegetables for my mother to bunch up.
She summoned me! She showed me the vegetables left over from market that morning. She wanted to know what happened to the bunches of green onions and coriander, explaining to me that the way I had brought them home showed why they didn’t sell. With a bunch that she made up, it would have been just the right amount to use in any dish. The rearranged bunch was too small for one dish and any cook would know that. She asked me to explain why I rearranged them. I was embarrassed and humiliated for not succeeding at what I had set out to do.
It was all about the red fried rice, I explained in tears. I wanted to make just 1 baht to buy red fried rice so I could be like everyone else. She asked me what red fried rice looked like and listened as I told her the details. It’s glisteningly red with pieces of egg on the top and some fried onions and garlic. She lamented that it must have been made with lots of oil, red food coloring and pieces of egg to justify selling it for 1 baht. She scolded me and told me that the old lady couldn’t pay her 1 baht to eat it let alone accepting money from small children for such poor food.
For dinner the next day she made fried rice and a clear soup. My father was surprised and asked why fried rice. My mother said it was because I wanted to eat it. My mother’s fried rice was not red and there were lots of vegetables and meat in it. It was delicious and I felt special but it was not THE red fried rice. I don’t remember that I ever had any money to buy it and to this day I still have not tasted it.
Years went by and I learned that Thais only made fried rice when there was leftover rice plus other leftovers to be used up. There was not one way to make this dish. Suffice to say it needed to be tasty with good texture and a blend of salt, spice and aroma. Sometimes we would make fried rice when there was an over abundance of vegetables left over from the market. If they looked too exhausted to go back to the market, they ended up in a wok and reincarnated into fried rice.
Fried rice remains among the top ten on my list of ‘comfort’ foods. I could never make it the same way twice but the memory of that first fried rice nearly sixty years ago lingers on and the presence of my mother watches over me to make sure that no red dye goes into the wok.
Making fried rice is similar in principle to making a sandwich. You put in what you like, leave out what you don’t. For me, it is a good way to clean out my fridge because anything goes. For protein, eggs, tofu, any meat, fish, prawns or crabmeat can be used. Any leftover cooked or raw vegetables work well. The key ingredient, rice, is best when cold. Hot rice often gets gooey when stir frying.
Thai fried rice is unique because it calls for ‘fish sauce’, a salty and strong aromatic sauce made from fermented fish. It is delicious but if I make this dish for people who prefer not to eat fish sauce, I would substitute it with sea salt. Soy sauce is what goes in Chinese fried rice therefore I would not use it. Here is a list of what goes into Thai fried rice. All is optional and all can be substituted with an exception of RICE. (This recipe is for 4 serves)
¼ cup vegetable oil (can be any except olive oil which is not good when used with high heat)
3-4 cloves chopped garlic
3-4 eggs (if there is no other protein, I would use 4-6 eggs)
1 cup protein such as chicken, pork, tofu1 tomato, chopped (optional)
1 tablespoon fish sauce or 1 teaspoon sea salt
2 cups cooked rice
a dash of ground white pepper
chilli sauce if you like it hot
1-2 green onions
2-3 sprigs coriander (cilantro) chopped
1 lime or lemon (optional)
It’s easier to make fried rice in a wok but a deep frying pan also works. High heat is essential.
Heat oil until almost smoking hot. Quickly stir in garlic and crack eggs directly into the wok. Break the yolks and stir until cooked. Add meat, vegetables until heated through. (If using raw meat, make sure it is fully cooked.) Add fish sauce or sea salt. If it looks too dry, add a little water just to moisten up. Quickly add cooked rice. Stir quickly but carefully without breaking the grains or the rice would become mush. Dash in ground white pepper and any preferred sauce.
Serve fried rice garnished with chopped spring onion and coriander (cilantro). Sliced cucumber or sticks of carrots is a good accompaniment as well as a wedge of lime or lemon. Heaven on earth!