Thursday, January 15, 2015

How to use up leftovers: riso alla Cantonese (or Yeung Chow fried rice) fried in duck fat

Alternative title: Chinese food that really isn't Chinese

Most of us are aware that the Chinese food we eat is often heavily bastardized. I still haven't had the privilege of eating the authentic thing, but between NY and Milan (the latter appartently boasts the largest and oldest Chinatown in Italy), I have been lucky enough to get a little closer to the real deal compared to the food we are so often served on this side of the world.

Taking a step back, I think even the concept of Chinese food is a foreign invention, because it is such a regional cuisine, with dishes and ingredients varying enourmously from one part of the country to the other. Much like Italy might I add. Another thing to consider is that meat does not often take center stage in an authentic Chinese meal, leaving much more room for fermented foods and tofu, and when it does, the cuts, the kind of animals (insects and jelly fish just to mention a few alongside pork, chicken and beef...) and animal parts used (chicken feet, duck tongues, pig ears and blood are just a few examples) are often not quite suited to Western palates (although many of us are becoming more adventurous and curious eaters). The same goes for certain flavors: chefs often add sweetness (sweet and sour pork anyone?) or dial down the heat or fermentation factor to appease their local clientele. Last but not least, many authentic ingredients never make it over to our side of the world, so we substitute them with more common ones. And when they do, it is sometimes hard for a Westerner to order them (more often than not, they are listed in Chinese or simply a given and not even put on the menu). I like looking at what my Chinese neighbors are eating and whenever I enquire with the person serving us about certain unknown vegetables, they don't even seem to have a translation for them. The answer is invariably "verdura verde cinese", or green Chinese vegetable.

And so on this side of the planet we eat an array of dishes, sweet and sour pork and chop suey being pretty typical examples, that don't even exist in China or if they do, greatly differ from their Western cousins. If we dig even further, there seem to be specific dishes in individual countries that the local population identifies as typical Chinese food, but that really isn't.

Wontons are a popular appetizer (a concept that in itself doesn't exist in China I believe) in the US, but I have never seen those here in Italy and neither have most Chinese in China, I imagine. Another thing I have never had in Italy is the all-American fortune cookie. Peking duck is also not easy to come across here and when you do, you have to order it ahead and then the pancakes are prepared for you, which is half of the fun. Not to mention those boxes for Chinese take out food, that every Italian has grown up seeing in American movies and crime shows. Here alluminium trays with cardboard lids reign supreme.

Among the Italian Chinese staples I would definitely list the ubiquitous spring roll, chicken with almonds and riso alla Cantonese or Cantonese rice, which after some research on line, seems to be a Cantonese interpretation of Yeung Chow fried rice. Fried ice-cream used to be the star of desserts, but after the invasion of Chinese-run Japanese restaurants, green tea and rice milk ice cream have become quite the thing.

But in all of this, I know there is a question you just cannot shake off.

Go ahead, say it.

Why, oh why, was I researching riso alla Cantonese on line?

The fact is, I had a lot of left over long-grain white rice and wanted to fix a quick dinner with random ingredients I had in the house. As I surveyed the meagre options at my disposal, counting a couple of eggs, a half empty bag of frozen peas, some cooked ham cubes and a jar of duck fat leftover from some breasts I made in 2104, I had an idea.

Riso alla cantonese, made exactly the way I have seen it in hundreds of Italian Chinese restaurants throughout my life! As I continued my online research (I know!), I discovered that Yeung Chow fried rice usually includes shrimp and other vegetables like carrots but the most common kind here is the holy trinity of eggs, ham or roast pork and peas. The good 'ole yellow, pink, green combo.

It made for a perfect and quick Chinese meal Italo-Chinese meal. ;o)

No measurements for this recipe, use the amounts you like, according to how much rice you have.

cooked long-grain white rice
diced cooked ham (or roast pork)
onions (or preferably scallions)
duck fat

When making fried rice, long-grain rice cooked the oriental way is preferable. It is also always better to use rice that is at least a day old as it has lost a lot of its humidity: Drier grains are less sticky.
Heat a good amount of duck fat (or any other fat - but this gives it that real extra kick) in a wok or a large non-stick pan (I imagine a well-seasoned cast iron pan would work well too).
Chop the onion or scallions and fry them in the fat. In the meantime, make a thin omelette and break it up into small pieces. You could make it in the same vessel beforehand if you want to minimize washing up, but making it in a smaller non-stick pan allowed me to do this while the onion was cooking. Some recipes suggest cooking the egg directly into the rice, but I like the pieces to remain separate for added texture and color.
When the onion is translucent, add the ham and when it has browned a little add the frozen peas. Stir for a few minutes and then pour in a good glug of soy sauce.
Finally add the rice and egg you had set aside, mix well until hot and the rice grains have been nicely separated and coated. Serve immediately.


  1. Anche io nella chinatown di Londra ho scoperto cibi che qui non ci sono come vla peking duck e altri ...e forse sono un po' più cinesi di quello che troviamo qui. ..anche se come dici tu. .. mi sa che la vera cucina cinese è ben diversa regione x regione ;) comunque il riso alla cantonese piace tanto anche a me e il tuo è venuto benissimo! ... guarda che la prossima volta che vieni a Venezia mi devi avvisare che ci incontriamo ;)
    Un bacione

    1. Hai ragione: è stata un'improvvisata dell'ultimo minuto e siamo andati solo in giornata... ed era la prima volta che portavo i bimbi a vedere i luoghi della mia infanzia per cui è stata una giornata pienissima. Ma mi piacerebbe venire per un week end a breve e in quel caso ci sentiamo di sicuro!

  2. I love the idea of the fusion. This is a great looking fried rice/risi dish. I like how you used duck fat in the recipe xx

    1. In this case, fusion is a fancy way to call the recipes Chinese cooks have created to cater to local palates ;o)

  3. I'm a *huge* fan of Chinese food. Eat it at least three times a week out, and I have even taken to studying and preparing it at home, although I never dare to blog about it.

    When I first arrived in Rome (this was in the mid-90s) Chinese restaurants were among the very few foreign cuisines you could find. It was curious to see how different this "Chinese" food was from the kind you would find back home or in Paris or Vienna, where I had lived previously. Then when my job took me to Hong Kong and Beijing, I had the chance to try Chinese cooking on its native turf. As you say, there's a big difference between real Chinese food and the kind you are likely to find abroad. If you have a chance, check out the documentary "In Search of General Tso"—it's pretty funny but it also tells the story of how Chinese food was "translated" in the US to suit local tastes. Surely similar things happened elsewhere.

    1. Interesting, will definitely check it out! Thanks Frank

  4. It is an incredible coincidence that we were discussing the reginality of Italian food last evening, actually wondering if Italians (who pretty much eat only their region's cuisine) ever et Chinese! So you have answered our question! We once went to a banquet for a Chinese family at a local Chinese restaurant. Nothing on the menu looked or tasted familiar, and we were told by a Chinese woman at our table that most Chinese restaurants have dual menus - one for their Chinese clientele and one for the non-Chinese! We now ask for the Chinese menu - and then from that ask for recommendations from our server! We've had some wonderful dishes! Maybe you can try that in Milan?

    1. And I meant to say that your fried rice looks delicious!

    2. Yes, we often do that now (thus the several 'verdura verde cinese' incidents I mentioned ), or I cheekily look at what the Chinese at other tables are ordering. We usually try to go where the Milanese Chinese go. Glad I answered your question ;o)


Leave a suggestion, opinion or your own experience. I love hearing from you.