Around three months ago, a Malaysian stand-up comedian took the Internet by storm thanks to a video where he trashes a BBC food video on egg fried rice. Nigel Ng as Uncle Roger, a conservative middle-aged Chinese man dressed in a bright orange polo shirt with a hilariously thick Chinese accent, severely critiqued chef Harsha Patel’s recipe of egg fried rice, specifically fussing over her decision of draining the cooked rice over a colander and washing it under running water.
Uncle Roger took the Internet by storm. The rice video was followed by many other comedy sketches which showed his hilarious, intolerant old-school traditionalism. He did three more fried rice review videos, notably those of Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay, the latter released just weeks ago. If you haven’t checked any of these out already then do so, immediately. You’re in for a treat.
Fried rice is a ubiquitous Asian dish, with each culture having their own take on it. The version I grew up with however, was rather different from the Chinese style. The so-called Bengali style fried rice is a lot sweeter, with a use of sugar that would make Uncle Roger faint. The idea here is similar to a lot of Bengali dishes, especially the food of West Bengal as opposed to East Bengal (Ghoti vs Bangal). A little sugar is added not merely to sweeten the dish but to bring balance, rounding out the spice and salt in the dish.
This style of fried rice has been a staple in Bengali weddings or biyebaris and other feasts until very recently. A slightly sweet rice with bits of vegetables is the perfect accompaniment to the rich chicken or mutton dishes, undoubtedly the high point of any traditional biyebari menu. The fried rice is not assertive in its flavours and plays second fiddle to the meat. The traditional biyebari menu sequence is revamped a lot these days with more fashionable and quirky items Amritsari fish and chicken lasagna, but there is a certain charm in the old-school biyebari menu. A detailed look at the biyebari feast will have to wait for later.
The biyebari-style fried rice is much more subtle in its flavours compared to its Chinese counterpart. A touch more pepper if you want it a bit on the spicy side, else a touch more sugar, and that’s it. The only strong flavours used are ghee and powdered garam masala, but even that is used very sparingly. The USP of a great biyebari fried rice is the bounty of vegetables that goes into it. Granted, I’ve always found the rice to veggie ratio of the biyebari versions to be unfairly out of balance, but my mother’s home-cooked version always had a lot of veggies. After all, it is a great way to get children to eat vegetables so the more, the merrier.
It is unbelievably just how different this style of fried rice is from the traditional Chinese style. For starters, a Chinese fried rice is best made with leftover rice. As Chris Thomas from Chinese Cooking Demystified, arguably one of the best YouTube channels for proper Chinese food says, making fresh rice for fried rice is like roasting a turkey to make a turkey sandwich. The purpose of a fried rice is convenience, using up leftover rice by mixing up with bits and pieces of other stuff to make a complete, hearty meal. That isn’t the case here, where fried rice is made as a special occasion dish rather than a kitchen hack and almost invariably starts with freshly cooked rice.
Then, there’s the matter of how to drain the rice. The use of a rice cooker is starting to take over this rather dexterous traditional method in modern Western and even Asian households. Uncle Roger flinched at the idea of draining rice over a colander, saying that it’s not pasta and rice should never be drained that way. Funnily enough, Bong Eats’s video on how to cook perfect rice shows exactly that technique. In our house however, my mother would always drain the rice water through a tiny slit between the saucepan and its lid.
In my opinion however, the most crucial difference is the fact that the fried rice of China and the Nasi Goreng of Indonesia are complete meals on their own, with a proper balance of rice, vegetables and protein like fish, chicken or beef. Add to that some sauces like soy sauce and chilli sauce and you’re sorted. These flavours change all over Asia. Indonesian Nasi Goreng would use ingredients like sambal oelek (a kind of chilli paste) and kecap manis (a sweet, syrupy soy sauce), while Thai Khao Phat will swap the soy sauce for fish sauce.
Finally, there’s the method of cooking itself. Bengali fried rice is made by cooking the vegetables, adding the rice and seasoning and stirring in a kadhai over a low flame till the flavours meld. A Chinese stir-fry on the other hand, is all about being fast and furious. The rice, veggies, proteins and sauces are furiously tossed together in a wok over a searing flame which cooks it in minutes and imparts the rice with “wok hae”, a characteristic smoky note often described as the breath of the wok. It is very far off from the gentle labour of love that I grew up with.
I remember how skeptical my mother was when I first recommended the use of minced ginger and chopped garlic in a fried rice, along with some vinegar and soy sauce. To her, as it is to most Bengalis, the fried rice is a very mild dish, and to add potent ingredients like garlic and vinegar seems sacrilegious. Although I love some chopped garlic and soy sauce in my Indo-Chinese fried rice when paired with my chilli chicken, I will always go back to the classic Bengali version when it comes to a chicken curry. It’s all about context.
The Bengali and the Chinese fried rice are similar only in name and the fact that they are both made with rice. The ingredients, style of cooking and method of serving are incredibly different. Show Uncle Roger the Bong Eats video and he will flinch, almost much as my mother did when I first stained her pristine white fried rice with a splash of soy. These are two very different dishes which happen to share a common name.
A week ago, we had a mini feast at the hostel room of a college senior from Kolkata. It was a rare day when all of us Bongs here in Rohtak had the evening off and we decided to have a bit of a get-together. Being Bengali, a love for good food is ingrained within us and so he decided to go the extra mile and cook up a delicious meal that was unmistakably Calcuttan: murgir jhol with Bengali-style fried rice. It is amazing how food can transport you to a different place and time, and I realized: as much as I love a spicy fried rice glistening with pork fat, there is a certain understated nostalgic, homely charm in the Bengali-style fried rice which is unique and irreplacable.