Why It Works
- The high-output flame of a kitchen blowtorch imparts the distinctive smoky aroma and flavor of classic wok hei that is otherwise very difficult to achieve on a Western stovetop.
- Cooking the rice in two batches keeps the heat high and guarantees the grains won't clump up as you stir-fry.
- Iceberg lettuce provides a refreshing, crisp crunch, and picks up a good amount of that smoky torch hei aroma.
- Quickly stir-frying the shrimp at the end yields tender, juicy shrimp; their moisture content is ideal for torching.
What’s the best part about shrimp fried rice? Is it really the shrimp*? The rice? Or is it the whole package? Fluffy, smoke-tinged grains of rice, tender bites of perfectly cooked shrimp, and those little accents of vegetables, neither too much nor too little. Take the shrimp fried rice from your local Chinese place, for example (for me, that’s Dumpling House in Cambridge, MA): In the best cases, you don’t care what you’re eating—and that’s a great thing. It’s salty, it’s meaty, and it’s got those consistent hits of MSG that you blissfully ignore; you’re happy to shovel that stuff in you mouth by the spoonful with abandon.
*Why is it called shrimp fried rice? Contrary to what you might think, a shrimp does not fry the rice. So why not ‘fried rice with shrimp’? I suspect that’s an artifact of translation: The word order for “fried rice with shrimp” in Chinese is typically “shrimp fried rice.”
The earliest record of fried rice comes from the Sui Dynasty, roughly 1500 years ago. Historians believe that fried rice was a way to incorporate leftovers into the day’s cooking. As such, the ingredients weren’t necessarily first-rate or in mint condition: Days-old meat, sad looking vegetables, and other humble bits and bobs were standard.
In the spirit of honoring that history, good shrimp fried rice is about doing more with less. But how do you pull it off at home? With a couple of thoughtful techniques, and some carefully chosen ingredients, “modern” takeout-style shrimp fried rice is possible.
First off, it's important to understand that stir-fry recipes like this happen fast, so you need to have everything prepped and near the stove before you begin cooking. And while this is true of any recipe, it's especially true when there's no time to stop: Read the recipe through fully and make sure you understand the sequence of events.
Next, leave the soy sauce, sesame oil, and that fancy oyster sauce in your cupboard. Sure, those ingredients pack a bunch of flavor and, when used judiciously, they can lend extra layers of savoriness to your dish (I use some of these ingredients in another fried rice recipe). I’m just as much of a sucker as anyone for “dirty” fried rice that’s drenched in those elements. But shrimp is a delicate flavor that deserves more finesse. Instead, the flavorings here are simple: garlic, white pepper, and, most importantly, chicken seasoning powder. Specifically, I opt for Totole Granulated Chicken Soup Mix, which is a bit of a secret weapon in the Chinese-American restaurant industry. This product’s yellow, highly soluble pebbles of flavor capture that distinct blend of MSG, meatiness, and slight sweetness that characterizes so many of the Chinese takeout dishes we know and love.*
*I’m not here to weigh in on the health implications of using “synthetic” MSG and products that contain MSG in your day-to-day cooking. If you’re interested in learning more about MSG, I’ll leave it to Kenji to do the heavy lifting and myth-busting.
For inclusions, my picks are similarly minimalist; scrambled eggs, frozen peas, and sliced scallions are standard fare. I also throw in a healthy amount of chopped iceberg lettuce. Why iceberg lettuce? Wouldn’t that just wilt away into soggy, wet oblivion? Isn’t that a low-brow, amateur move? Well, yes and no. Believe it or not, iceberg lettuce is a common ingredient in Chinese stir fries and fried rice. (In fact, the iceberg lettuce is perhaps my favorite part of the fried rice at Dumpling House.) The thinner sections of leaves certainly do wilt, but the thicker parts are surprisingly resilient and retain their refreshing, crisp crunch, despite the quick bouts of intense heat in the pan. Iceberg lettuce is cheap, it works well to provide textural contrast, and it has just the right moisture content for generating wok hei—which brings us to the stir-frying technique itself.
Proper stir-fry technique is integral to bridging the gap between okay fried rice and legit, delicious, takeout-style fried rice. Here, I use a blow torch to approximate wok hei flavor while cooking in batches so the wok stays hot. The water content in both the lettuce and the shrimp is ideal for igniting vapor droplets of oil, which generates plenty of that coveted smoky aroma. That combination of torch hei and MSG seasoning is the crux of this recipe—the key to evoking the unmistakable flavor of takeout shrimp fried rice. Stir-frying with a kitchen blowtorch is optional, but it’s important to note that the flavor will not be as smoky without one.
As for the shrimp, I found the most success with pieces of shrimp no larger than one inch. Large shrimp tend to be thick enough to hedge against overcooking, and remain tender through the cooking process. Frequent Serious Eats readers may know that we often recommend a quick baking soda brine for shrimp, which plumps them up and can improve texture, but in my testing here, I found the extra water retention encouraged by the brine increased the cooking time of the shrimp and reduced the overall smoky flavor I wanted in a stir fry; for that reason, I’m not using the technique here.
- 3 tablespoons (45ml) vegetable oil, divided
- 2 cups (12 ounces; 350g) cooked white or jasmine rice (see note)
- Kosher salt
- White pepper
- 6 ounces (170g) iceberg lettuce (about 1/4 of a head), sliced into 1/2-inch strips
- 1 teaspoon Totole Granulated Chicken Soup Mix (see note)
- 3 large eggs, beaten
- 4 garlic cloves (20g), minced
- 6 ounces (170g) large shrimp, peeled, deveined, and cut into 1- to 1 1/2-inch pieces
- 3 ounces (85g) frozen peas
- 2 scallions (30g), ends trimmed and thinly sliced
If using day-old rice (see note), transfer to a medium bowl and break the rice up with your hands into individual grains before proceeding. In a carbon-steel wok or 12-inch carbon steel skillet, heat 1 1/2 teaspoons (7ml) oil over high heat until smoking. Add half of the rice, season lightly with salt and white pepper, and cook, stirring and tossing, until rice is pale brown, toasted, and has a slightly chewy texture, about 3 minutes. Transfer rice to a medium heatproof bowl. Repeat cooking process with another 1 1/2 teaspoons oil and remaining rice. Set rice aside in bowl.
Heat 2 teaspoons (10ml) oil in now-empty wok over high heat until smoking. Add lettuce, season lightly with salt, white pepper, and 1/2 teaspoon seasoning granules, and cook, stirring and tossing, until beginning to wilt, about 15 seconds. If using blowtorch, hold flame 2 to 3 inches above wok while stirring and tossing constantly, until oil combusts and imparts smoky aroma, about 30 seconds. Set aside in bowl with rice.
Heat 2 teaspoons (10ml) oil in now-empty wok over high heat until smoking. Add eggs, season lightly with salt, and cook, stirring gently until just cooked through, about 45 seconds. Using spoon, break up eggs into small pieces. Transfer cooked eggs to bowl with rice and lettuce.
Heat remaining 2 teaspoons (10ml) oil in now-empty wok over high heat until smoking. Add garlic and cook until just fragrant, about 10 seconds. Stir in shrimp and season with salt, pepper, and remaining 1/2 teaspoon (2g) seasoning powder. If using blowtorch, hold flame 2 to 3 inches above skillet while stirring and tossing constantly, until oil combusts and imparts smoky aroma, about 30 seconds. Continue cooking shrimp until just cooked through, about 1 minute longer.
Add rice, lettuce, and eggs and toss to combine. Add frozen peas and scallions and continue to toss and stir until peas are thawed and every grain of rice is separate. If using blowtorch, hold flame 2 to 3 inches above skillet while stirring and tossing constantly, until oil combusts and imparts smoky aroma, about 30 seconds. Season with salt and additional seasoning powder to taste. Serve.
For best results, use Chinese-style medium-grain rice, jasmine rice, or sushi rice. Rice should either be cooked fresh, spread on a tray, and allowed to cool for five minutes, or, alternatively, cooked in advance and refrigerated in a covered container for at least 12 hours and up to 3 days.