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History of Yang Zhou Fried Rice • World's Most Famous Chinese Rice Dish 扬州炒饭的历史

Frying rice in China goes at least as far back as the Sui dynasty (581 - 618). Most cities in the rice culture (southern) region of China have their own version of fried rice dish - China is a fried rice paradise, literally. 

How did Yangzhou fried rice become China's and the world's most famous fried rice dish? 

During the Sui dynasty, Yangzhou was a province which included today's Guangxi, Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces - unsurprisingly, the rice belt of China. (Today, Yangzhou is city in Jiangsu province.)

Yangzhou fried rice was popularised by a Qing dynasty (1644 - 1911) official named Yi Bingshou 伊秉綬 (1754 - 1815). Before it was known as Yangzhou fried rice, this dish was known as 三香碎金饭 "three fragrances shattered gold rice".

Despite its somewhat awkward, pompous name, it is actually a humble dish.


The basic Yangzhou fried rice / three fragrances shattered gold rice has only three main ingredients egg, scallion (spring onion) and rice (hence three fragrances).

So, making a tasty serving of Yangzhou fried river depended a lot on technique and skill.

For example, chefs add scallions to the Yangzhou fried rice three separate times (i.e. in 3 stages) during the frying process. The first two times to bring out the maximum flavour from the aromatic green and infuse it into the rice grains. And, the third time as a garnish.

Yi Bingshou was the governor of Yangzhou when great floods swept through the city. Yi Bingshou organised aid and rescue for the flood victims. He provided hungry victims stranded on rooftops on cold nights with the comfort of warm fried rice and saved many lives.

To this day, floods still plague Yangzhou, the "Venice of the East".

Yi Bingshou wrote a recipe for his version of 碎金饭 three fragrance shattered gold rice. Yi Bingshou's Yangzhou shattered gold fried rice went beyond rice, egg and scallion to include other ingredients such as chicken, fish, scallop, ham, etc., thus opening wide the door to creativity and versatility in this humble dish.

When Yi Bingshou returned to his native Fujian, he brought this style of fried rice along and it became known as Yangzhou fried rice since it came from Yangzhou city.

During the dying days of the Qing dynasty before it collapsed in 1911, many Chinese people had to go overseas to Nanyang and the Americas as coolies. Mostly from Guangdong and Fujian provinces, they brought the comfort of Yangzhou fried rice with them.

Hence, Yangzhou fried rice spread around the world wherever Chinese went and became the fried rice icon of the Chinese.

The thing that makes Yangzhou fried rice travel so well is its recipe is so flexible. It ranges from just rice, scallion and eggs to anything the chef / cook can imagine.

But, what makes a good Yangzhou fried rice hasn't changed much since Yi Bingshou's day, whether it is made with three or thirty ingredients.

Egg like Osmanthus Flowers 蛋花形如木

As mentioned, the basic Yangzhou or three fragrance shattered gold fried rice has only three main ingredients - egg, scallion (spring onion) and rice. 

The "shattered gold" refers to eggs which are stir fried into light, fluffy "petals" 蛋花, scattered all over among and in the mound of fried rice. 

In good Yangzhou fried rice, the egg is like delicate golden osmanthus flowers 蛋花形如木.

Other than the classic 碎金饭 variety where the yellow egg "petals" are separate from the rice grains, today there's the 
金包银炒饭 variety where each rice grain is completely encased in yellow egg yolk.  

Tender Rice 米粒不软不柴

In good Yangzhou fried rice, the rice grains are separate, discrete, soft tender, fluffy 米粒不软不. The rice do not clump together like sticky lumps.


The grains of rice, stir fried and tossed in the hot wok danced on the surface (like excited jumping beans).

Dancing on the searing wok, imparts the energy as well as coveted toasty smokey taste and smell known as wok hei 锅气 on each grain of rice.  

Each Grain Rich in Deep Flavours 饭粒是一足鲜味

In keeping with greater affluence, almost all Yangzhou fried rice we see today go beyond the basic three of rice, egg and scallion.

The more complex versions inspired by Yi Bingshou have additional ingredients which can include sea cucumber, scallop, prawn, lobster, crab, ham, mushroom, chicken, fish, green pea, bamboo shoot, carrot, etc.

Anything goes as long as the flavours gel pleasantly. The ingredients are chosen for their aroma and flavour as well as their colour. Looking attractively beautiful and appetising is one of the characteristic of good Yangzhou fried rice.

Good Yangzhou fried rice has a bit of mystic on the plate. You can taste and smell the ingredients but it will not be obvious where it came from because, the diced / chopped ingredients must be smaller than a grain of rice.

Any of these ingredients by themselves taste better than plain rice grains, but in Yangzhou fried rice, the rice grain must be the star of the dish.

The process of frying and tossing the rice, egg, scallions and ingredients together extract their flavours and infuse them into the individual rice grains.

Each grain is a test of the quality of the plate of Yangzhou fried rice - each grain must be well infused with rich, in-depth flavours 饭粒是一足鲜味.

Of course, the test of the Yangzhou fried rice is in the eating.


Remember in the early paragraphs of this article, I mentioned that Guangdong (Yue 越) was part of Yangzhou province during the Sui dynasty. Egg fried rice or "three fragrances shattered gold rice" originated from Yue and spread across the Sui dynasty. It was served to the Sui emperor residing in Chang'an (today's Xi'an).

Hence, today there is debate in China as to whether Yangzhou fried rice should rightfully be credited to Yue 越 (today's Guangdong).

So, not only Singapore and Malaysia have such food debates because of history.

What are your thoughts?

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Written by Tony Boey on 8 Jun 2024


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