Why It Works
- Converted rice helps ensure fluffy, separate grains with little to no stickiness.
- Adding green bell pepper towards the end of the cooking process lends the dish a fresh, vegetal flavor.
- Partially cooking the rice first in Nigerian stock infuses it with savory flavor, while the second cooking combines the rice and vegetables, bringing the dish together.
In my personal top-five list of Nigerian rice dishes, fried rice―a light-yellow hued rice dish strewn with vegetables―is vying for the top spot with white rice, jollof rice, coconut rice, and Ofada (a sweet fermented rice). Like jollof rice, this popular dish is cooked at home and at restaurants equally, and is ever present at parties and special events.
Nigerian fried rice looks, feels, and eats like a dish that’s a cross between golden turmeric Indian pilau and vegetable-studded Chinese fried rice. It isn’t surprising that Nigerian fried rice is an amalgam of influences; both Chinese and Indians have lived in Nigeria since the 1930s and 1970s respectively, and have contributed to Nigerian food culture, notably spring rolls and samosas, which are permanent fixtures in small chops, a collection of Nigerian appetizers served at parties and celebrations.
Choosing Your Tools
While its name may evoke images of fiery woks and smoky wok hei, those elements don’t come into play in Nigeria's version, which instead uses a heavy-bottomed pot or sauté pan as the standard cooking vessel. Here, the desired result is more pilau than stir-fried: individual grains of rice that are cooked through but not mushy interspersed with tender, well-seasoned vegetables that hold their shape.
To accomplish this goal with ease, it’s crucial to start with the right kind of rice: converted, or parboiled, rice, like Uncle Ben’s Original rice or golden sella basmati. This kind of rice has been par-cooked and then cooled and dried. The par-cooking process fully gelatinizes the starch molecules in the rice grains, which is just a technical way of saying that the rice is cooked until the starch granules swell and soften. Once cooled and dried, the starch goes through a process called retrogradation, which is the same phenomenon that causes bread to turn stale. The result are dried grains of rice that cook up more separate and fluffy, with little to no stickiness, than their raw rice counterpart. This type of rice also does a great job of absorbing seasoning, a quality that lends itself well to taking on Nigerian fried rice's signature golden hue.
For the vegetables, it’s common to add carrots, onions, bell peppers, green peas, green beans, sweet corn, or even mushrooms. While protein is not explicitly called for in Nigerian fried rice, I’ve enjoyed versions with diced chicken and thinly sliced beef. As for the cooking liquid, Nigerian stock is primarily used but one can also use water or even coconut milk for a pronounced coconut flavor. It’s typical to season the rice with curry powder and dried thyme, which add fragrant warming spices and color. Beyond this, there are no hard and fast rules and variations abound, from plain fried rice simply studded with onions, carrots, green beans, and peppers all the way to a surf and turf version starring small shrimp and fried cow liver.
When I was growing up, my mum made fried rice on Sundays. It was her famous ‘test kitchen’ dish that she loved to experiment with, trying out new tips and tricks she'd come across, like using different varieties of converted rice to toasting the rice beforehand, to staggering the addition of vegetables, and changing the spices. While no two pots were identical, her cooking method often stayed the same: She almost always softened the vegetables in hot oil and added a handful of chopped green bell pepper towards the end, which were left to steam in the final minutes of cooking. The peppers remained bright green and lent a fresh vegetal flavor and aroma to the finished dish.
This recipe is almost exactly like my mum’s, save for the coconut milk, a tip I learnt from watching my friend Timi make hers. It adds a hint of creaminess which my children like. Serve with dodo, moi moi, and fried or grilled chicken alongside.