Chinese Fried Rice Takes to the Tropics

By: John DeMers

In the long-ago kitchen lingo of American café, diner and lunch counter, any dish ordered “walkin’” meant packaged to be carried out. Yet when you dig a bit through food history, no dish has walked farther, longer or with more impact than Chinese fried rice.

It has walked almost everywhere on earth, from southeast Asia to South America to the poorest neighborhoods of America’s biggest cities, where its compelling economics made it a beloved menu partner to soul food and burrito alike. In home kitchens, a relative to that logic also proved persuasive: fried rice was always an affordable way to take everything left from anything in the fridge and turn it into a satisfying meal.

We are eternally intrigued by the “trade routes” Chinese fried rice established for itself beginning with its invention in the late 6th century. It traveled south, more from immigration than from conquest, into Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, even into Indonesia when that chain of islands was controlled by the Dutch. There it became known as nasi goring. And it traveled with the empire to the Caribbean, taking up residence on Dutch islands like Curacao, Aruba and the “Dutch half” of St. Maarten, eventually helping to feed men, women and children who had once been African slaves.

In the tropics, fried rice took on tropical elements like pineapple, mango, a sprinkle of coconut or ripe plantains. The latter figures into one of fried rice’s most intriguing variants, the chaufa enjoyed around the capital of Lima in Peru. Obviously, China never conquered the land of the ancient Inca, except with the flavors imported by wave after wave of Asian immigration. Their “fusion” cuisine became known as “Chifa.” No one seems to call their most famous dish “Chifa Chaufa,” even though we think they should.

Best of all, according to us anyway, fried rice was never one of those inauthentic Chinese foods, as most believe chow mein and chop suey to be. It merely does what food always does best, taking its show on the road and picking up whatever comes freshest from the air, the earth and the sea. Now that has to be ultimate Fried Rice Walkin’.          


Some consider adding pineapple to a dish almost “cheating” when it comes to adding tropical flair, but we have never quite agreed. Fact is, many tropical dishes “taste” tropical because they incorporate the sweetness of pineapple or some other island fruit along with the savory and/or spicy elements delivered by hot peppers. In this case, nothing could be truer to fried rice’s origins in Chinese cookery than an obsession with hot colliding with sweet.    

2 boneless chicken breast halves, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon lemon pepper
2-3 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups canned pineapple chunks, with syrup
1 onion, finely chopped
1 red bell pepper, finely chopped
1 large carrot, finely chopped
1 cup frozen green peas
2 green onions, white and green parts, chopped or sliced
1 tablespoon minced garlic
3 eggs, lightly beaten
2-3 cups day-old cooked basmati rice
2 tablespoons Dr. Foo’s Bali BBQ Sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon dry sherry
¼ cup chicken broth
1 teaspoon crushed red peppers, if desired

Season the chicken with lemon pepper and cook in a little olive oil for 3 minutes in a wok or skillet over high heat, then add the pineapple chucks without syrup, stirring until they are lightly caramelized. Splash some syrup into the hot pot to glaze both chicken and pineapple. Transfer the cooked chicken to a mixing bowl (keep the bowl handy, because most things will end up in it after cooking.) Add the onion, bell pepper and carrot, stirring until softened.  Add the white part of the green onion along with the peas, tossing the heat and soften. Add the garlic and stir for only 1 minute. Transfer the vegetables into the bowl with the chicken and pineapple.

Adding a little more olive oil if needed, pour in the beaten eggs and let them cook, stirring lightly but letting them form a kind of casual omelet. When cooked through, sliced them into strips in the wok of pan or transfer to a cutting board for that purpose. Add them to the mixing bowl. Wipe the pan quickly and drizzle in the last of the olive oil. Add the dry day-old rice and toss in the oil until a few grains begin to brown. Add the chicken, vegetables and any juices, tossing until combined with the rice. In a small bowl, mix the Bali BBQ with the soy sauce, sherry and chicken broth. Carefully, avoiding any hot splatter, pour the mixture over the rice and toss until everything is coated. Serve garnished with remaining chopped green onions and optional crushed red pepper. Serves 6.

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