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stir-fry ... why the rice?

I grew up eating rice with most meals. But much as I love to eat, I'm getting to the age where I need to allocate my calories, and I also notice that the rice sugar-crash probably isn't great for me.

So, having seasoned my new carbon-steel wok with carefully saved bacon drippings, I was wondering ... do I really need rice with that stir-fry? Assuming that I can get used to eating my stir-fry without rice - and I can - is there any (nutritional) reason, other than Chinese custom, that I need a bed of rice under my piping hot stir-fry? It's mostly veggies, so I don't expect to end up in Atkins-ketosis.


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  1. I eat stir-fried vegetables without rice all the time. Never occurred to me that it was out of the ordinary.

    1. My Wife and I have stir fry without rice all the time. Sometimes we have rice, but we might also have potatoes, if we want. I do make sure to have rice if I'm making a big meal of it on the weekend or something, but for a quick after work meal, most of the time its just chicken and veggies.

      1. I grew up eating rice with everything from stir fry to pasta, so I understand the automatic compulsion. Now that I've broken the habit, however, I can enjoy my stir fry without the extra calories. Subbing brown rice for white may also help make the transition easier.

        1. When I eat at Chinese restaurants, I ignore the rice. That's not why eat there.

          Funny, when I was in China I don't even remember being served rice....

          1. Rice is cheap, and is traditionally used to pad out a meal for populations that could not afford to feed its people with the meat and vegetables that it had access to. So it developed into a cultural thing for many Asian countries, much like bread in other cultures. It's also why stir-fries exist: small amounts of meat and veggies can be stretched out to feed more people.

            Aside from this, I also have read in a book or two that rice is complimentary to many dishes, much like people who like to drink beer/wine/alcohol with certain dishes. Take a bite of the meat/veggie-based dish with the rice and the rice balances out the stronger flavor of the accompanying dish, rounding out the spices/heat/saltiness/sweetness/etc and allowing you to savor the flavor longer without it being an assault on the tongue and tiring your tastebuds out. I agree with this, as eating American-Chinese food without rice is total overload to me personally. There's just too much sauce, oil, salt for me to enjoy more than a couple of bites of any of the "entree" dishes in American-Chinese food, so I HAVE to have it with a lot of rice (much more than the puny amount they usually give out). It's how I was raised to eat it, too (parents owned and ran many Chinese restaurants). I mean, I grew up on the stuff, so I've tasted literally every dish on the menu. Rice was essential to most (if not all) of them, even if it only served as a base for something like lobster sauce. In fact, even lobster sauce is nothing without the taste of the white jasmine rice mingling with it, helping it along. I find a lot of actual Chinese/Asian dishes are the same way

            Again, this might just be personal. But it is a feeling my entire family agrees with. Maybe we just trained out taste buds a certain way!

            1. Many things in Asian cuisines are intended to go with rice and are seasoned that way. Rice helps cut and balance out the salt and sweet and concentrated flavors. If you adjust your own dishes then don't worry about the rice, especially since you hardly have to worry about trying to make your thrice daily bowl of rice seem less boring.

              1. Part of the nutritional reason aside from what others have mentioned would be to stretch out the meal. My suggestion would be that if you want or feel that you need something to go with the stir fry, to experiment with other grains or pastas. I will often pair my stir fries with quinoa, wheat berries, millet, buckwheat noodles or whatever I have in the cupboard such as polenta. If you're looking for a lower glycemic index food, a few of these would work well and there's also other pastas (spelt, kamut) that aren't as sugary/starchy as traditional wheat pasta.

                1. You don't have to have the rice.. but it does make for a more filling meal. I usually make brown rice (healthier) and serve myself a small portion in a separate dish from the stir fry.

                  1. We have been having farro (spelt) with stir fry. A bit chewier than rice, but a great healthy substitute. In fact, I've gotten to prefer it.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: OldTimer

                      I also like farro with stir fry. But it's not the same grain as spelt. Similar, I guess, but since I never tried spelt I can't say for sure. At any rate, there are a variety of whole grains you could use instead of white rice.

                    2. Having spent some time aboard the South Beach Carb-Haters train, I can say that Asian food without rice can be quite all right. And brown rice works very well a an accompaniment if you really need something to lay those stir-fried things on top of. Now, Persian and Turkish stuff, on the other hand, especially the former, is almost unthinkable without rice. Mrs. O and I ordered two classic dishes at a Persian place one night and very firmly said, "NO rice!" I thought the waiter was going to cry, he got so emotional in his begging and pleading, and when in the course of the meal I begged a bit of rice from one of our friends I understood why: the dish was like biscuits and gravy without the biscuits. Tasty, but woefully incomplete.

                      1. Interestingly, when you go to a fancy Chinese banquet you very rarely get rice. The general idea is that there is so much good stuff you don't need to serve rice for people to fill up on.

                        For normal eating, rice is simply a normal part of a typical dinner. My husband gets twitchy after about three days of no rice, no matter what we're eating.

                        Mind you, the American style stir fry made with some sort of meat and half a dozen different types of vegetables is something I've never actually seen after five years of living in Taiwan - the technique is the same, but here a stir fried given dish usually only contains a few ingredients.

                        5 Replies
                        1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

                          Yeah, a friend on a business trip to China mentioned the no-rice-at-banquets deal, which is what got me thinking.

                          > Mind you, the American style stir fry made with some sort of meat and half a dozen different types
                          > of vegetables is something I've never actually seen after five years of living in Taiwan - the
                          > technique is the same, but here a stir fried given dish usually only contains a few ingredients.

                          Say more. What's the essential quality of the difference - just fewer ingredients? What about the ratio of protein to veggies?

                          This is all super helpful - thanks.

                          1. re: fadista

                            It pretty much depends on who is cooking. Portion sizes tend to be ( smaller in China. They also tend to use less meat. Stir-fried dishes are not always a mixture of meats and vegetables. Quite often, they will be separate. You may have a dish of stir-fried beef and a separate dish of stir-fried baby bok choy.

                            They also prefer dark meat for chicken, and they use internal organs rather frequently. The vegetables may also be different, depending on the location and what is in season.

                            1. re: fadista

                              Generally fewer ingredients, and prepared with a sauce to complement those ingredients. Some dishes will be mainly meat, others all vegetables, others a mix.

                              So you get stir fried water spinach, one of my favourites, which can simply be water spinach, garlic and some sesame oil. Or eggplant, stir fried with basil and oyster sauce. Or pork and spring onions with soy sauce and rice wine. Or asparagus and shrimp served with a light sauce. Or Squid with celery and chili sauce. But you wouldn't see the kind of stir-fry I'd do in my student days, with onion, celery, carrots, mushrooms, green peppers, bamboo shoots, baby corn, bean sprouts and chicken, flavoured with soy sauce.

                              When we go with a group for a dinner we'd order a mix of dishes - a couple of meat based dishes (say, one chicken and one pork), a seafood based dish, some sort of sauteed green leafy things, a fish dish, and maybe a soup, with white rice on the side.

                              Another big differences is that raw vegetables are not part of the cuisine - they are regarded as unhealthy. The closest you'd get would be cold cooked dishes, or marinated vegetables, like cabbage with vinegar and sugar, or cucumber with chilies, vinegar, sesame oil and garlic.

                              1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

                                Just to add: Sauce is not a given in a Chinese stir-fry. Some dishes are dry-fried.

                            2. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

                              Chinese banquets and eating out are quite different from home cooking, obviously. Offering the best food with money as no object is the sign of a great host/hostess, so you typically won't see rice at celebratory Chinese banquets (where there can be 10-12 courses or dishes, at least) or at eating out establishments. The dishes will usually be seasoned so you won't need rice. There are exceptions, such as fish during New Year's, but even then...only a little bowl is offered.

                              Actual Chinese restaurants (not just Chinese American fare) in other countries will also focus more on the type of food that one would eat at home, not to mention the fact that in other countries/cultures, Chinese food is synonymous with rice.

                            3. I quit eating the rice that came with my asian take-out foods long ago, I like it better that way. And nothing works better for bacon fried rice for breakfast the next morning than take-out rice.

                              1. My husband actually prefers his stir-fry with spaghetti instead of rice. And since he's not a huge fan of the stuff in the first place, when I do make stir-fry, I tend to go a little overboard, so I always have more meat-vegetable stuff than starch to put it on.

                                I find that it makes a a fine lunch all on its own the next day. Or two. :)

                                1. You can get more nutrients from rice (or other grains) if you avoid the white stuff. I like millet, short-grain brown and hard red winter wheat the most. My guy prefers hard red winter wheat, brown basmati rice and millet. I'm not sure of the last time we bought white rice. The protein and iron is much higher in short-grain brown rice and so are the calories but there isn't the sugar crash.

                                  And, like the reponses already here, you don't have to have rice to make it a Chinese dish/meal.

                                  You could try making scallion pancakes, using thin spaghetti, bean thread noodles or just use more meat and veggies.

                                  I think a stir-fry would be great with a side of Chinese brocolli, salad with crisp veggies and snap peas, home made pot stickers or maybe a bean salad with edamame, black beans, diced peppers, diced spring onions, minced garlic, a dash of soy sauce or lemon juice and sesame oil. Oooh, what about a shredded cabbage salad with shredded fresh bok choy, thinly sliced shitake mushrooms and dressing or sauce of your choice?

                                  Well, now I'm hungry!

                                  1. Remember Seinfeld's Elaine and "fan of the big salad" ? I'm a fan of the big stir-fry, with the plate fully taken up with vegetables and whatever add-ins. No rice at home, at least very rarely.

                                    When I get take out, I do use a little steamed rice, and the rest goes to the dog, who loves it as a treat :)

                                    1. I love rice with my chinese food but I needed to cut down on the carbs, so white rice was one of the carbs I cut out. The first three days was really hard, because you actually "crave" the carbs but eventually, the craving did go away and I may only each rice one every few weeks or on special ocassions when I'm ask to prepare my special fried or sticky rice recipe.

                                      1. I do stir-fry without rice all the time... largely for the health reasons most have mentioned, and also because we didn't eat much rice when I was growing up so I'm not very attached to it. I'll take pasta any day if I'm eating refined starches!

                                        My boyfriend on the other hand, must have rice, pretty much every day (Filipino) - but it's the easiest side dish to make, so no complaints from this cook :)

                                        1. I have lived in China and Japan and I don't recall ever being served a stir fried dish "on top" of rice. That is pretty much an American custom. I have found that rice is normally served on the side, seperate from the main dish and is used pretty much as a filler. Most portion sizes in Asian can be quite small, but with the rice, it will fill you up...