When you eat the fried rice at ChiKo in Washington, you're helping save the Chesapeake Bay. Co-founder and chef Scott Drewno loads his up with spiced and smoked blue catfish, an invasive species that dominates local waterways.
That's not the only surprise in ChiKo's fried rice. If you think of fried rice as only the takeout staple with peas, carrots and baby shrimp, Drewno would like to broaden your horizons. His version has squid ink, dehydrated egg, bonito and seasonal vegetables, such as squash.
"Rice and egg are essential to fried rice," said Drewno. "From there, you can do anything."
He's not the only chef treating fried rice like a blank canvas. More and more restaurants are experimenting with the dish, building upon the timeworn template for a classic comfort food. New York's Gramercy Tavern has had various fried rices — mushroom and sunchokes, or calamari and saffron — on its menu over the past two years. And a kimchi fried rice at Baroo in Los Angeles was named the best dish in America by Bon Appétit in 2016.
Baroo chef Kwang Uh's fried rice is a beautifully composed bowl that includes a sous-vide egg, purple potato chips, microgreens and gremolata, an Italian condiment made of lemon zest, garlic, parsley and anchovy. And then there's the ingredient that Uh says is "the reason it gets all the attention": a fermented pineapple salsa. It's "pretty similar to white kimchi in Korea, but it has pineapple notes and aroma, and flavor," said Uh, who trained at Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Fried rice lends itself to this kind of cross-cultural mixing. Aeropuerto, a fried rice with noodles that originates from Peru, is a hallmark of Chifa, the fusion of Chinese and Peruvian food cultures. At José Andrés's China Chilcano in Washington, it's adorned with a cute nod to its name: airplane-shaped radishes.
What makes an ideal fried rice? "I don't like a lot of vegetables in mine, just egg, scallion and protein," said Washington's Tiger Fork chef Nathan Beauchamp. He offers two fried rices on the menu: one with Chinese sausage and chicken that's been braised for six hours, and the other with cured mackerel and prawns. But for guests in the know, "we have a secret menu. You can get all four [ingredients] if you ask for it," he said.
Chefs' affection for starchy comfort may not be the only thing driving the trend. There's another benefit.
"It's a great moneymaker because you can use some stuff you had left over from the night before," said Beauchamp.
Maura Judkis is a reporter for The Washington Post, covering culture, food and the arts. She joined The Post in 2011.