When I feel like I need vegetables, I order salad or I made savory muffins/pancakes. When my parents feel like they need vegetables, they make 'chai fan'. I'm not sure if this is a specific Shanghainese thing or more trans-China but it's a meal staple, it's nutritious and it tastes good.
I'll run through the method that my mum uses but apparently, there's a lot of estimation because the technique is 'touchy'. Up to a certain point, the steps are straight forward and then, when you're adding water, call on your risotto instincts because the principle is very much the same: add water gradually until the rice is just cooked.
The basic ingredients are bok choi and rice. My family likes to add a bit of salted meat (dad salts and dries the meat himself) but obviously this is not available to everyone. Another tasty addition is Chinese sausage i.e. lap chong. You can buy these from any Asian supermarket - they look like thin salami sticks.
Chai Fan (Bok Choi Rice)
- 2 bundles of bok choi (approx 750g)
- 4 tbsp vegetable oil
- 3 cups of rice (uncooked)
- 250g salted meat (or the same weight in lap cheong)
1. Chop the bok choi up - it doesn't have to be too fine.2. In a large wok, heat the vegetable oil and toss the bok choi in. Add the salted meat or lap choeng and stir-fry till the boy choi is wilted and the meat is just starting to change color (lap cheong won't change color but the fat inside will begin to render).
3. Add the rice and keep stir-frying until the rice granules start to go opaque white.4. At this point, transfer the whole lot into a rice cooker and add about 1 cup of water. Close the lid and flick the rice cooker on.
5. Once the rice cooker switches to 'warm' (as in, it thinks it's finished cooking), add a little more water (approx 1/3 cup at a time) and flick the switch again to 'on'.
6. Repeat this until the rice is cooked - might take 30min or even a bit longer. This is the tricky part because you don't want it to over-cook and become gluggy. The rice tastes best if the granules are still reasonably separated but you also don't want hard bits of uncooked rice. Adding the water gradually is the best way to do it (like when making risotto) but it's time-consuming and difficult to get right.
7. Once the rice is cooked, serve as is - no need for any dishes to accompany it. Usually, you don't need to add salt because the meat is salty but if you are doing a pure vegetarian version, you might want to add a bit of salt at the beginning in the wok.
The success of chai fan really depends on the rice-cooking stage. The last time mum made this (when I took these photos), it turned out really yum. It's surprising how you can make something as boring as rice and bok choi taste so good. Chai fan is probably real 'peasant' food because it's cheap and simple but sometimes, you gotta think that they have the right idea.