Mystery of Fried Rice

Food for Thought @ HK Food Court

This fried rice from Mama’s Kitchen in HK Food Court has what I might designate as “S” in Wittgenstein’s private language argument. (It stands for a specific private sensation.) Most fried rice served in Japan have this S. Two other places in New York that have it are Taiwan Pork Chop House and Kong Sihk Tong in Chinatown.

What is this S? I don’t know. I’ve watched countless YouTube videos of professional chefs tossing fried rice in their woks and studied numerous recipes, but they all use the same ingredients. This S apparently arises out of something other than ingredients. Chris suggested that it might be the high heat in professional kitchens, but if that’s the case, why wouldn’t all restaurants have it?

He also suggested that it might be something on the wok that imparts that flavor. But if they were to keep cooking all day, wouldn’t the wok eventually run out of this S?

I often make fried rice at home, and I’ve had a few cases where this S was present, but I don’t know what I did that gave birth to it.

This drives me crazy because I don’t even know how to describe the sensation. Before Kikunae Ikeda, a professor at Tokyo University, discovered “umami,” he must have struggled in the same way. I thought, perhaps, my S is a type of umami, so I’ve experimented with adding and subtracting MSG, but S has remained elusive.

Maybe this S is an emergent phenomenon, an entity observed to have properties its parts do not have on their own. When you study the individual parts independently (ingredients, cooking tools, and environment), it disappears.

I wonder if S would be present if I made the same fried rice at Mama’s Kitchen by following the same recipe. If that is successful, I could bring home all the ingredients and make it at home to see if S would still be there.

But what if S is missing when I cook it at Mama’s Kitchen? That would mean that the cook is an essential element and that I don’t have the required essence. Come to think of it, everyone I love in my life has a unique S that I cannot reproduce for myself. Is something like “love” the key element of S in fried rice?