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The Best Healthy Fried Rice
Recreate the memories of your childhood with a healthy version of fried rice.
When I was a little girl, one of my favorite treats was take-out Chinese. My father would call the order in then drive to the 'Chinese-American' restaurant where he would have a couple of beers while waiting for the order. We salivated for a full hour waiting for him to walk in the door with the brown sack that would reveal steaming boxes of crispy fried shrimp, pork fried rice, tangy sweet and sour shrimp, barbeque pork, egg foo yung, and chicken chow mein strewn with those wonderful dried crispy noodles. Because times were tough and money tight, there was a pecking order when it came to who got what. My brother and I were meted out a couple of shrimps along with small slivers of barbeque pork, then filled up on the fried rice and chow mein. I loved the little packets of soy sauce (that my dad referred to as 'bug juice') and the tiny tubs of hot mustard that came with the meal. I felt sophisticated when I brandished wooden chop sticks and delicately dipped a small sliver of barbequed pork into the piquant sauce that accompanied it.
When I was in college, and able to order my very own take-out or dine-in, I favored chicken with cashews, a steaming dish I savored with a pot of fragrant tea and the book I was reading at that point in time. The restaurant I frequented held a special place in my heart as it was the final destination of a second grade field trip to view the Chinese collection at the University of Oregon's Museum of Art. After viewing the tiny replicas of pagodas (the very same pagodas that were printed on the take out boxes I loved so much), and thrones from the Forbidden City in Beijing, we ventured on to taste ‘authentic’ Chinese food. The restaurant where we ate has long since been closed, only to be been replaced with a Panda Express, the 'McDonalds' of Asian food.
During my Sophmore year in college, I took the Greyhound bus to Portland over Christmas break and visited my friend Jeannette. In search of underage drinks, we went to Portland's Chinatown, and ended up at the very infamous Hung Far Low's where we drank tequila and ate steaming mounds of food from our combination platters. I don't know if it was our slightly inebriated state that made the food taste so good, or the 'clandestine' nature of our drinking, but good it was. I was to revisit this spot many times over the years to come, often merely to prove to out-of-town guests (who never initially believed me) that a restaurant bearing such a name actually existed. And still does, albeit the address has changed.
In the late 1970's the United States received the first major influx of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian refugees fleeing political instability in their homelands. The second wave came at the beginning of the 1980s; these were primarily Cambodians who had first sought refuge in Thailand. It would be difficult to describe the horrors of fleeing one's own country, many times on foot with just the clothes on their backs, only to arrive in a foreign land with a foreign language and a host that was not overjoyed to have such company. Amazingly, most of these refugees were able to establish strong communities here within a relatively short period of time. Our culture and cuisine has benefited in many ways from these immigrants. I moved to Portland in the early '80s and was overjoyed to see the proliferation of Thai, Vietnamese and Laotian restaurants over the next two decades. The culinary traditions of all of these countries have mutually influenced each other over centuries, which explains the overlap in menu items. To my delight, they all offered multiple versions of fried rice, incorporating pineapple, cashews, chicken, shrimp, basil, curry and myriad other ingredients. The fried rice of my youth paled in comparison to these heady and fragrant concoctions.
The constant that remains is the fact that fried rice, whether it be from the Chinese-American restaurants of my youth or the Southeast Asian Restaurants that I now visit, is a fattening dish laden with oil and fattening meats and nuts (cashews for example.) What I desired was a way to enjoy this dish that evokes so many pleasurable childhood memories without gaining the 'freshman ten' that my weekly visits to eat Cashew Chicken probably contributed to. My answer came from the "Moosewood Restaurant Low-fat Favorites" cookbook. I have altered the recipe somewhat, and have so indicated in brackets. It's a vegetarian recipe, but shrimp, chicken or pork can easily be added. If you are like me it will become a weekly staple.
Thai Fried Rice
1 cup chopped onions
3 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
3-4 Tbsp Thai curry paste [I use Mae Ploy Red Curry or Panang Curry paste]
1 Tbsp canola or vegetable oil
1 cup peeled and diced carrots
2 cups finely chopped Chinese cabbage
1 cup diced red bell peppers
5 cups cooked rice
1/2 cup diced tomatoes
1 cup mung bean sprouts
3 Tbsp soy sauce
2 Tbsp chopped fresh mint
2 Tbsp chopped fresh cilantro or basil [Curry leaves, if you can find them, are great]
In a large nonstick skillet, saute onions, garlic, and curry paste in oil for about 5 minutes. Add the carrots and cabbage, cover, and cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the peppers, cover, and cook 3-4 minutes, until vegetables are just tender. Stir in rice, tomatoes, sprouts, and soy sauce and cook, stirring constantly, until rice is heated through. Add mint, cilantro or basil, and, if desired, additional soy sauce or curry paste.
[I frequently add tofu or prawns, both of which give a big 'ol protein boost!]
Per serving: 250 calories, 6.6g protein, 3.1g fat, 49.8g carbs, 509mg sodium, 0mg cholesterol, 3.1g fiber