Yangzhou fried rice (扬州炒饭) is a ubiquitous dish just about everywhere Chinese food is served—even the American variety. It’s perhaps the most common form of fried rice there is: a confetti of glistening grains, chunks of egg, ham, peas, and shrimp. In the States, it’s a decorated carb that fits nicely inside greasy takeout containers and can also be found twirling on the lazy Susans of fancier establishments.
According to local Chinese legend, the dish was a favorite of Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty. When he visited modern-day Yangzhou, he reportedly introduced the dish to the city. Others claim that the plate of rice actually originated from the Cantonese-speaking region of Guangzhou, where it arose during the Qing Dynasty. The latter makes more sense, as the majority of Chinese restaurants in the States are of Cantonese origin. Nevertheless, the history of the dish remains vague.
Curious about the origins of this rice, I took a day trip to Yangzhou to figure it all out. Yangzhou is located in the central area of the Jiangsu Province. It has always been a land of wealth; it used to be a major trading center for salt, rice, and silk up until the 19th century. Today, it’s known locally for its quaint gardens and internationally for its fried rice. All of the restaurants proudly advertise the dish on their menus.
In October of 2015, the city of Yangzhou attempted to break a Guinness World Record for the largest volume of fried rice ever made. They clocked in an impressive 4.6 tons, but were disqualified when judges found out most of the rice was thrown away. The food had been left out for four hours and deemed unsanitary—a sad ending for a team of nearly 300 local chefs.
“There’s a standardized recipe for the rice,” Mike Huang, a cooking teacher in Shanghai, had told me weeks before. “Aside from egg and rice, there are eight main ingredients.” In 2002, the Yangzhou Cuisine Association released a rubric for a proper plate of fried rice. Those ingredients are sea cucumber, chicken, ham, scallops, shrimp, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and green peas. “The colors should be red, green, yellow, and white,” it reads.
I start off at a restaurant called, very literally, Yangzhou Fried Rice. It’s the only restaurant in the town named Yangzhou Fried Rice and, by my logic, a great place to start. The order comes out. It’s a plate topped with pine nuts, thin sheets of tofu, peas, and mushrooms.
“I don’t get it,” my friend says, staring at the tofu. We wave over a chef, who had been stealing glances at us in the corner, amused by our apparent confusion.
“Where’s the egg?” we ask. “And shrimp and ham?”
“You’re in a vegetarian restaurant,” the chef tells us, laughing.
I look around; there are posters for vegetarianism all over. It’s all terribly weird.
Later, we find an old historic alley called Dong Quan Men Street (东圈门) and stop in front of the first restaurant that we see, this time diligently double-checking for vegetarianism. There are no indications of that, and so we walk in and order a plate.
“Do you make standardized Yangzhou fried rice?” I ask.
“Standardized fried rice isn’t even that good,” Mei Chen, the owner, tells me—undoubtedly just trying to appease me. “We use most of the ingredients, though.”
The plate comes out: canned corn, cucumber, eggs, ham. It reminds me of the rice from lowbrow Chinese restaurants back home in the States.
I try a couple more variations throughout the day. Some have sweet sausage; others look like they were just stir-fried with canned vegetables. But none of them have all of the proper ingredients in one plate. The most impressive one comes from a rather popular restaurant named Shi Zi Lou (狮子楼). It’s also the most expensive, at nearly $10 USD a plate.
“We have exactly eight ingredients,” the waitress says, to our excitement. It’s been a long day and we still haven’t found a fried rice dish that follows the official list of ingredients. The plate comes out: fish floss, mushroom, egg, scallions, chicken, scallops, shrimp, and sea cucumber. Close, but not quite. It’s tasty, but the purist in me is disappointed. There’s no ham or bamboo.
Our time in Yangzhou is up and I take a cab to the train station, feeling defeated. Though the whole city is filled with plates of Yangzhou fried rice, few seem to care enough to follow the official rubric. Yangzhou fried rice in the city of Yangzhou is a purely interpretive label. In short, it’s a marketing tactic.
I think back to a conversation I had earlier in the day, on the train ride over to Yangzhou from Nanjing. I had met a local girl named Helen Ma—a university student who was traveling home for the Chinese New Year.
“We’re heading to Yangzhou. I’ve heard a lot about the fried rice there,” I had told her. “Is it anything special?”
She had leaned in with a smile and said, knowingly, “Honestly, it’s just egg fried rice.”
Clarissa Wei is currently backpacking to all the provinces in China. She plans on single-handedly eating the entire country. Follow her adventures on Facebook.