The Evolution of Random Comfort Food

One of the slighter slight flaws in my character is an unaccountable fondness for bad Americanized Chinese food. When I go to Starbucks to write, I walk right past a Chinese buffet restaurant, and it’s a real effort not to run in and overdo it.

I occasionally try to cook stuff in this general category at home, with fairly mixed results. One thing that I’ve often tried to do at home is fried rice, with fairly mixed results, mostly because I don’t generally have the right kind of rice on had (we mostly use medium grain rice from the “Hispanic” section of the supermarket, for no really well thought-out reason).

Another issue for me is that I don’t particularly like eggs, and fried rice of the steam-table buffet genre always includes eggs. Scrambling an egg in the pan then adding the rice always results in big chunks of fried egg, that I then try to eat around, which isn’t very satisfactory. So one time, a few years back, I was very interested to see an episode of Iron Chef (the original Japanese version, with bad dubbing) where one of the competitors made a fried rice dish, and explained that the secret was to break the egg and mix it in with the rice first, then throw them in the pan together. And, indeed, this works very nicely to provide the egg-ness that the dish needs without big unpleasant clumps of just egg.

Then, one time when Kate was out of town, I attempted to make this only to realize that we were out of soy sauce. Which, of course, I discovered only after the rice was in the pan cooking. Looking for something to flavor the otherwise really bland rice with, I grabbed a jar of that chili paste you see in some Asian restaurants. The jar I have says “Sambal Oelek” on it, which might be a brand name for all I can tell. It’s red, and has bits of seeds floating in it. That worked very nicely, indeed.

More recently,m it occurred to me that the chili-plus-eggs flavor of the thing had a faint Thai sort of character to it. On those vague grounds, I threw a bit of dried basil in, which bumps up the vaguely-Thai character quite a bit.

The result, described below, is now pretty far from the original Americanized Chinese dish, but it’s pretty tasty, in a comfort-food kind of way (comforting only to me, by the way– Kate doesn’t like spicy things, and SteelyKid doesn’t believe that rice is food). I just made another batch for lunch today, in fact. And also, believe it or not, this story is vaguely relevant to the project I’m working on at the moment (though I won’t explain how until said project resolves itself into either a book or a whole mess of blog posts). So, you know, it’s all good.

The recipe, such as it is:

One serving bowl worth of leftover rice
One smallish cooked boneless chicken breast, cut up (pork works, too)
One serving of leftover peas
One egg
Chili paste
Dried basil

Heat a pan or wok over high heat, with a little bit of oil in it just on principle. Break the egg into the bowl of rice, and mix until the rice is coated.

When the pan is very hot, dump the rice mixture in and cook it stirring constantly for a minute or two, until it no longer looks like raw egg is involved.

Stir in the meat and peas, and keep stirring until they’re heated through.

Drop in a bit of the chili paste, the exact amount depending on taste. I use something on the short side of a teaspoon, which is pretty good. Don’t put your face right over the pan when you drop it in, because you sometimes get some really viciously spicy steam out of the process. Stir so it’s mixed thoroughly with the rice.

Dump in some basil. Again, I used dried basil from a fairly old jar, and give it a few good shakes. The vague goal, seasoning-wise is to have every bit have a couple of basil flakes and a chili seed or two. If your spices are fresher, you might need less. Unless you really like basil. Mix it quickly, dump it into a bowl, and eat. This goes well with light-ish beer, in the Singha/ Tsing Tao vein.

(It would not at all surprise me to learn that there’s an actual dish with more or less these ingredients. I haven’t made any effort to see if there is, because I arrived at this through the random process described above, not through any knowledge of actual cuisine.)

7 thoughts on “The Evolution of Random Comfort Food

  1. I would guess that many dishes in many cultures have evolved in more or less that fashion. For instance, the use of chili paste or powder in Asian cuisines only goes back about 300 years–chili peppers are native to the Americas and were only brought to Asia around 1700 (by Dutch traders). Even today, many Asian cuisines (particularly Japanese and northern Chinese cuisines) don’t use hot peppers.

    The pointer about combining egg and rice before frying is a good one. I have a similar aversion to eggs, which is one reason I generally avoid fried rice altogether.

  2. I’ve done similar concoctions for years — all arrived at via a similar process. I like using a Chinese chili-garlic paste and usually add a bit of finely chopped onion.

    Another variant is to use diced bacon instead of the chicken or pork, then do the stir fry in some of the bacon fat.

  3. Sambal oelek isn’t a brand name, but the Indonesian word for very plain red chilli paste (made in an oelekan, that is, a stone mortar).

    There are in fact many kinds of sambal; our local Indonesian shop makes very fiery sambal badjak (fried, with onions) and pleasantly mild sambal kemiri (with candle-nuts).

  4. Ah, cheap and fast Chinese food, a staple of us grad students.

    I only cook a couple dishes that I know pretty well, here’s one of them, which seems to be a variant on what’s known as ma-po tofu

    you’ll need:

    * vegetable oil

    * a block of firm tofu (like the 12-16 oz ones sold near the organic stuff in most groceries)
    * soy sauce

    * 8 oz ground pork (I end up with 16 oz so I just double everything else)

    * 1/4 tsp salt
    * 1/4 tsp pepper
    * 1 tsp corn starch

    * 2 tsp chili powder
    * 2 tsp minced garlic (usually I just put in a couple minced cloves)
    * 1 tbsp hoisin sauce
    * 1 tsp sugar
    * 1 tsp cayenne (although chipotle pepper works well too; gives it more of a southwestern US BBQ style flavor)

    You’ll want to cut up the tofu into 8 cubes before cooking, and draining it. If you don’t want the tofu to crumble, making sure all the water gets out before you play around with it too much is essential.

    You’ll also want to mix the ground pork with the salt, pepper, and cornstarch, but do that separately from the tofu; you won’t be cooking them together, for the most part.

    Get a nonstick pan or skillet and apply oil to coat the surface. Once the pan gets hot enough, add the tofu. Let it get golden brown on each side, and then add some soy sauce. Give it another minute or so and take it off the pan and set it aside.

    Cook the pork until it turns properly white, and then add the remaining ingredients (hoisin, sugar, peppers, garlic). Give it another minute or so and then add the tofu back.

    It’s a very lovely dish due to how simple preparation is once you’ve gotten all the ingredients.

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