Editor’s note: “Foodscapes Near Me” is a biweekly food anthropology column that explores the origins and evolution of dishes particular to college cuisine.
It’s late at night at the end of a long week. You’ve been studying or working and didn’t find the time to hit the grocery store before closing; all you’ve got left is some rice, an egg, and a few slowly wilting green onions.
Chances are, if you’ve found yourself in this same scenario, you made the classic college student choice to throw together some fried rice. It’s fully customizable, hard to mess up, and reliably delicious no matter what you decide to throw in. This also happens to be one of the best leftovers, whether you ordered takeout or made it yourself. But you don’t need me to tell you that.
So how has such a simple dish with centuries-old tradition become so universal to the American college experience?
The history of fried rice is one of intermixing and adaptation, much like the dish itself. According to the 1988 book “The Food of China,” its origins in ancient China are murky and are mostly based on conjecture from sparse written records and archeological evidence, with estimates as early as 5000 BCE. The stir-frying technique used to make the dish is thought to have developed sometime in the Han Dynasty (202 BCE - 220 CE), but it didn’t take on its current form or significance until the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 CE).
The origins of fried rice are difficult to trace, for two reasons: class and variability. Recipes for the dish developed through the use of leftover rice and vegetables from previous meals. This method would have been especially important for people who were unable to regularly afford fresh produce and needed to use what little they had before it spoiled. Because it was largely a leftover dish, ingredients depended on whatever was financially, regionally, or seasonally available. This typically meant that fried rice was more of a method, rather than a formal recipe.
Yangzhou fried rice — often called special fried rice in restaurants — is considered to be the earliest formal recipe, and consists of leftover rice, two kinds of meat, a variety of vegetables, and eggs, all stir-fried in variable configurations of seasonings like soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, oil, stock, and lard. Today there are endless variations of the dish, not only in China but in countless other countries as well, where it has been adapted to fit local tastes and ingredients.
Other popular variations come from regions in East and Southeast Asia.
Nasi goreng, the national dish of Indonesia, is a take on fried rice that is broadly popular throughout Southeast Asia. It’s distinct in its smoky, caramelized flavor that results from the use of a sweet soy sauce called kecap manis. Japanese variations of fried rice, which include chahan, also known as yakimeshi, make use of Japanese ingredients like nori (dried seaweed) or dashi. Thailand’s khao phat is made using long-grain jasmine rice, as opposed to short-grain, whereas Korea’s bokkeum-bap usually includes kimchi and is often an end-of-meal addition, where leftovers from the main dish are used as ingredients. These are just a few of many variations on fried rice, and there are countless others that have arisen throughout South and Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and even South America.
What about North America? How did fried rice in its many forms come to be such a ubiquitous staple of the American college foodscape?
The story begins with Chinese immigrants in the 19th century. According to Yong Chen, author of “Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America,” it is “a story not just of marginalization and exploitation but also of the resistance and perseverance of Chinese Americans in the face of enormous hostilities.”
Chinese immigrants to America in the 1850s did not arrive with culinary intentions; they sought work in the gold mines of California, as well as in farms and factories. As these early immigrants encountered increasing violence, discrimination, and anti-Chinese legislation, they were largely pushed out of more lucrative occupations and into the service sector that the growing white middle class had shunned. Restaurant and laundry work became the few options available to many of these immigrants, especially in the wake of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the violent attacks against Asians in West Coast cities throughout the 1880s. Racist stereotypes, in large part, confined Chinese food to Chinatowns and the communities where immigrants gathered after fleeing discriminatory violence.
White patronage of Chinese restaurants increased in the early 20th century with the rise of consumerist values. For white families who could not afford to hire a chef, eating out became an acceptable alternative symbol of status. Chinese restaurants were generally the most inexpensive option, and they became an increasingly popular choice among the growing white middle class. Chinatowns themselves soon became exotic tourist destinations.
Throughout the 20th century, Chinese restaurants would skyrocket in popularity among all facets of American society. They became a popular destination for white youth because they were open late, inexpensive, and viewed as a rebellious choice. Chinese restaurants were also one of the few establishments at the time that welcomed Black Americans. Their non-observance of Christian holidays also made them a staple destination for Jewish communities in big cities like New York.
As the popularity of Chinese restaurants expanded, so too did the food, which soon adapted to accommodate American tastes. In the early and mid-20th century, emphasis was placed on simple and inexpensive Chinese foods. Chop Suey became an emblematic dish of the era, a simple stir-fry with Chinese origins that morphed into its own distinctly American creation. Fried rice was another staple, because it was inexpensive and less “exotic” compared to broader American tastes
Gradually, inexpensive Americanized Chinese food became a staple of the American foodscape. Despite increasing interest in authentic Chinese cuisine in more recent decades, Americanized Chinese food remains the broadly popular option, especially in low-income areas like college towns.
The pandemic, however, has shed new light on lingering discrimination, xenophobia, and hate toward Asian American communities — a resurgence spurred in large part by former President Donald Trump’s persistent reference to COVID-19 as “the China Virus.” Chinese takeout restaurants, too, have been hit especially hard by the pandemic, with a greater number of them closing earlier on in the pandemic compared to other restaurants, according to an article from Restaurant Business.
From its origins in ancient China to the variations found around the world, fried rice carries a multitude of connections to rich and complex histories. The storefronts lining the Ave represent many of these stories, with fried rice served at a plethora of Asian-owned restaurants, such as Mee Sum, Noodle Nation, Hawaii BBQ Restaurant, Thanh Vi, Nasai Teriyaki, and U DupBop, to name a few. As we continue to battle through this pandemic, do what you can to support local restaurants. In doing so, you can explore the endless possibilities of simplistic but delicious fried rice.
Reach columnist Taylor Zachary at email@example.com. Twitter: @trzzachary
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