Behind the Fried Rice Curtain, Part 1

Personal histories from Southern Chinese American restaurant families

January 24, 2013

Photo courtesy Anita Chen.

I grew up in my parents’ Chinese restaurant in Abbeville, SC. We were the only Asian Americans in a town of not quite 6,000 that was known as the “birthplace and the deathbed of the Confederacy.”

Around the town center and in front yards, the American stars and stripes wave alongside Confederate flags and the menacing Gadsden flag with its coiled rattlesnake ready to attack, forbidding you to tread on him.

I observed, as a child, how vulnerable it is to serve people food. With every order, we were setting ourselves up for personal scrutiny. Our food had to be exotic enough that they would pay for it, something they didn’t cook at home, yet not so foreign that it would be unacceptable to eat. Fermented black beans? Whole steamed fish? Better stick with white meat, broccoli and other facile dishes. 

Rice, surprisingly, seemed to be the most contentious of menu items. Rice is important in South Carolina, has always been on the table and is hardly ever the plain white rice that is so important to my Chinese family. I grew to love rice dishes at friends’ homes, with minced meat, in baked casseroles, with melted cheese or butter. They were flavorful and offered respite from my quotidian bowlfuls of blank white rice. 

Rice was the state’s first major export crop, with flourishing plantations producing half of America’s rice from a single South Carolina county before the Civil war. However, without slave labor after the war, most of the plantations collapsed or were sold. Despite production at a much smaller scale today, rice remains important to South Carolina culture.

Occasionally, customers come into the restaurant to order a plate of “dirty rice.” My mother, unaware that they are expecting a southern medley of slow-cooked rice and meat, would serve the next closest thing: wok-fried rice with pork. It’s a fine reinterpretation, close enough. 

Even when customers are expecting fried rice, they can hold firm beliefs about how it should look. Regional differences of fried rice preparations exist in America, and those expecting a plateful of golden yellow rice are surprised to see the brown tint of Kikkoman at our restaurant. They indignantly declare to my mother that it is not fried rice at all. For this reason, she has been scolded countless times for not knowing how to cook proper fried rice. Like the coiled rattlesnake, evidently, yellow rice cannot be trodden upon either.

Anita Chen spent half her life in Abbeville and is now a graduate student in New York University’s Food Studies program.

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