As cooking contests go, it was a modest endeavor: Who could make the best Chinese fried rice? There would be two competitive cooks - me and my date, Steve, and four judges - our roommates. The prize? Keeping one's pride.
It was a good excuse for a dinner party, we thought. Chinese New Year was near, and Steve, who'd one day be my husband, had a new apartment with a kitchen fit for competition. If the roommates feared they'd been invited to the breakup of a relationship, they didn't let on.
Now, fried rice doesn't really have much to do with Lunar New Year celebrations. The dish is vulnerable to being the depository of too many leftovers, from a little too much inspiration on the part of the cook.
For the Chinese the holiday is the year's biggest, a time to pull out all the stops. Celebrations can last for weeks. You are supposed to prepare foods with symbolic significance - like steamed whole fish and sticky-rice pudding.
But we were dealing with stomachs raised on American Chinese-restaurant food. And anyway, does whole fish complete with skin and head seem like a party to you? Fried rice was far safer.
As one of the two cooks, my strategy was to present a rice with a symphony of colors and taste. Like M&Ms before they eliminated tan and added blue, all the colors of the food rainbow: red, orange, yellow, brown, and green were used.
Steve's "recipe," on the other hand, was the epitome of what no respectable Chinese-American would use. His key ingredients were beef, scallops, shrimp, and bean sprouts - a little unconventional, but then - don't look now, mom, soy sauce. The last thing you should ever put into fried rice.
Soy sauce, that bottle of salty, black liquid with the screw-on red top, ubiquitous in so many Chinese restaurants.
My mother always says that you can't make fried rice with hot rice, it has to be cold. And when she makes the dish, she always looks down on using soy sauce.
Come challenge day, Steve and I set our dishes on the table, before our guests were called in. (This was the "scientific," blind-tasting part.) No one was supposed to show preference toward his or her roommate. No one was supposed to play out a battle of the sexes, although the ingredients were there: women versus men.
Perhaps our statistical sample was too small. Perhaps the judges wanted to encourage Steve, the more novice cook. Perhaps, the judges just liked ...(ugh)... soy sauce.
I only got two votes. My ever-loyal roommate, the one I kept for years until she dumped me for her husband, voted for me. And so, I confess, did I.
Although Steve thought it was seafood that won over the judges, I'm sure it was soy sauce that led his rice to victory.
So celebrate 4697, the Year of the Rabbit, and add soy sauce, if you must. My mother and I, will just look the other way.