THE COLUMBIAN EXCHANGE
In my previous article (‘Memories of Lasagna’), I wrote about the various incarnations of that powerful pasta dish in my life. It has transformed as it has traveled with me. But travel can also take place on a grander scale than just the personal. Historically, food traveled long distance as part of mass migration. Take, for example, the movement generated by colonialism. Europeans moved to colonies in Africa, Asia, and the Americas; slaves moved in chains from Africa across the world; colonial subjects moved to Europe. With them traveled their favored crops, family dishes, and regional cuisines. Black-eyed peas traveled to North America in the hold of a slave ship. Hernán Cortés brought a small yellow tomato to Europe in 1521, and made possible pillar dishes of the Italian kitchen. Peaches traveled westwards from Persia to Europe, and put down roots in South America in the 16th century after being introduced by the conquistadores. This colonial migration of crops and cuisines was so significant it has its own name: ‘The Columbian Exchange.’
The movement continues. Migration is how the croissant became a smash-hit globally. It is the reason sushi traveled from Japan to California, and from California onward across the world (re-dubbed the ‘California Roll’). Lastly, migration is how an Asian dish of leftovers managed to travel and transform into hundreds of local variations.
Fried Rice Across the World
I am speaking here of fried rice. Before it left it surpassed its Asian roots, fried rice was already a common denominator of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Malay, Filipino and Thai cuisine. The concept is simple: take your leftover rice, chuck it in a pan with any meat and vegetables you might have knocking about, stir-fry, serve and enjoy. From these humble beginnings, fried rice has developed into a multitude of different flavors and styles. And it traveled: Asian migrants, who spread across the world in the 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st centuries looking for work, fortune, or a safe haven, continued to resort to this dish as they left their homeland. Eventually, they served it to their new neighbors too. Fried rice took up its place in the local cuisine. As it did, it was inevitably influenced and changed.
The result is a plethora of international versions of fried rice: Hawaiian fried rice (with Spam); chaulafan in Ecuador (with pork and dark soy sauce); arroz frito in Cuba (with Cuban lechón, suckling pig, and lobster); arroz chaufán in Peru (made with quinoa instead of rice); and arroz chau-chau in Portugal (with the addition of cod).
A Dutch variation
Here in the Netherlands, we prefer the Malay and Indonesian style nasi, served with a potent hit of spicy sambal (hot chili paste). An important national variant is the nasischijf. The fried rice is shaped into what looks like a hockey puck, rolled in breadcrumbs and deep fried. This may seem an insult to the original dish, but in practice, the nasischijf takes up an important place in the Dutch culinary tradition. On Friday night, at the end of a long workweek, one family member is sent out to the local ‘snack bar’ (a café or cafeteria). They bring back chunky fries, thick creamy mayonnaise, and an assortment of meat-based snacks (nasischijf, kroket, and frikandel among them). Young Dutch children dream of the mouthwatering smell of freshly fried food, an odor which remains suspended in the house for the rest of the weekend.
Drumbeat of the World
Food travels, and in its migration, it ends up taking on a completely different form than its original. This is inevitable. But it is also what keeps food dynamic, interesting, and alive. One of my favorite scholars, Sidney Mintz (an anthropologist), wrote the following, ‘The persistent drumbeat that implies perpetual movement […] ought not to get in the way of our remembering not only how food systems began long ago, but also about where […] they may end up once again, sometime in the future.’
The future is now, and what we make of it. Below you will find my recipe for Breakfast Fried Rice. It is a transmutation of Filipino, Japanese, and Chinese style fried rice which I encountered in London. These days, I have it with a teaspoonful of sambal, made by my Indonesian colleague. She produces it in her kitchen at home, and sells it stored in peanut butter jars. I have listed the other ingredients I usually resort to. But really, the motto of fried rice is ‘anything goes.’ All you need is some leftover rice (about one day old is the best), leftover vegetables (time to clean out that fridge!), a few condiments, and lastly, some free-range eggs.
Wake up to make this on a lazy Sunday morning. Spend about fifteen minutes throwing it together, then sit down with a friend or loved one to enjoy the zingy jolt of chili and rice in the morning. While you cut through the runny yolk of the fried egg and watch it seep into the crisped rice underneath, take a moment to appreciate the drumbeat of a world in perpetual movement.
Heat oil in a large wok or large non-stick frying pan. Add garlic, dried chili flakes, half of the sesame seeds, half of the spring onions, and stir fry for about one minute. Add the leftover vegetables and stir-fry for another minute. Add rice, stir-fry for two to three minutes (or until heated through). Add the rice vinegar and soy sauce, keep stirring for another minute or two and transfer to a bowl. Fry the two eggs in a non-stick frying pan, preferably sunny side up. Make sure to cook the egg white through, but keep the yolk nice and runny. Place your eggs on top of the rice. Sprinkle with the remaining sesame seeds and spring onions. Serve with a dollop of sambal on the side. Enjoy!
'Anything Goes' Breakfast Fried Rice
Heat oil in a large wok or large non-stick frying pan.
Add garlic, dried chili flakes, half of the sesame seeds, half of the spring onions, and stir fry for about one minute.
Add the leftover vegetables and stir-fry for another minute.
Add rice, stir-fry for two to three minutes (or until heated through).
Add the rice vinegar and soy sauce, keep stirring for another minute or two and transfer to a bowl.
Fry the two eggs in a non-stick frying pan, preferably sunny side up. Make sure to cook the egg white through, but keep the yolk nice and runny.
Place your eggs on top of the rice. Sprinkle with the remaining sesame seeds and spring onions.
Serve with a dollop of sambal on the side. Enjoy!