There are certain dishes that people ask me about and Vietnamese red rice is one of them. It's a dish that's become popular in a number of Vietnamese restaurants abroad -- a diaspora dish, if you will. It's not part of the Vietnamese repertoire in the sense of being a classic dish that says, "I'm Vietnamese!" On the other hand, what makes something a classic? Perhaps, a particular food becomes a classic if over time, enough cooks make it and enough people like it.
There's a red sticky rice called xoi gac in traditional Vietnamese cooking where sweet rice is coated in the red-orange pulp of the gac fruit (Mormordica cochinensis), a spiky volleyball-sized fruit that's related to bitter melon. That slightly sweet, rich xoi gac sticky rice is associated with celebratory occasions, like weddings, because its reddish color symbolizes prosperity and good luck. Usually, the rice is paired with roasted meats like crispy pork or duck.
I imagine that Vietnamese red rice is a take on xoi gac, only it's made with long-grain rice and is essentially a glorified fried rice. The difference is that the rice is cooked in butter and lots of garlic. Vietnamese restaurants, like their Chinese brethen, have lots of rice around so why not make fried rice?
I recently purchased a copy of the Red Lantern Vietnamese restaurant cookbook from Australia and there was the red rice recipe. I gave it a whirl , found it to be a tad greasy and bland, and adapted the recipe here for you to try.
For those of you who love this rice, let me know if it comes close to what you've enjoyed in Vietnamese restaurants. And if you try the recipe, do tell us all about your personal tweaks!
Like all good fried rice, cook your rice on the firm side (use less water than usual) so that the grains retain their individuality. Then let the rice dry out in the refrigerator. If you have leftover rice, here's a great way to use it up! The rice will literally fry without soaking up tons of fat. The less moisture the better for fried rice, lest it becomes soggy. That's why the tomato paste is a champ and giving the rice great color and a touch of sweet flavor. As for the Maggi Seasoning Sauce . . . I like it for some savory depth.
Pair the rice with wok seared (shaking) beef (thit bo luc lac) or grilled or roasted meats. Something rich here is nice -- something you'd eat with knife and fork. I served mine with a pan-seared pork chop seasoned with shallot, garlic, garam masala, fish sauce, and kecap manis.
Serves 3 to 4
4 cups cooked long-grain rice
3 tablespoons butter or canola oil
2 large cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
Scant 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons Maggi Seasoning Sauce or light (regular) soy sauce
1. Put the rice on a baking sheet and refrigerate it, uncovered, for 8 to 24 hours, until it is dry enough for you to gently crumble in your hands. Midway through, turn the rice to ensure even drying. Before cooking, return the rice to room temperature.
2. To make the rice, heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat and add 2 tablespoons of butter. Once the frothing subsides, add the garlic, and cook, stirring frequently for about 2 minutes, until the garlic no longer smells raw and turning blond. Add the rice and stir to combine. Add the tomato paste and stir to coat the rice and turn it red. Increase the heat slightly and cook, stirring constantly for about 3 minutes, until the rice is heated through.
Sprinkle in the salt and Maggi Seasoning Sauce and stir to combine well. For extra richness, add the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter. Continue to gently fry the rice for another 1 to 2 minutes, to sear in the flavors. Remove from the heat, taste and add extra salt, if necessary. Transfer to a bowl and serve immediately.