Make the Crispiest Clay Pot Rice in a Cast-Iron Skillet

Sisters Sarah and Kaitlin Leung were in college in upstate New York and Philadelphia when they realized just how little they knew about cooking Chinese food. Eager to recreate her parent’s home-cooked meals, Sarah badgered her parents—who had recently relocated from New Jersey to Beijing for a temporary work assignment—for tips. She was confronted by what she describes as recipes composed of “a-little-of-this, a-little-of-that,” which her mother relayed over the phone.

“I needed more instructions—clearer recipes,” Sarah writes in the family’s new cookbook, The Woks of Life. “The logical thing to do was to record them somewhere so we could all go back to them again and again, with access to them forever.” When Sarah graduated from college in 2013, she started The Woks of Life, the blog she writes with Bill, Judy, and Kaitlin. Together, they’ve published over 1,000 recipes, including traditional, regional Chinese dishes—think chili oil wontons and dry-fried green beans—and Chinese-American favorites like crab rangoon.

food, amazon, make the crispiest clay pot rice in a cast-iron skillet

The Woks of Life: Recipes to Know and Love from a Chinese American Family

$28.00, Amazon

It was quickly obvious they weren’t the only ones in search of these Chinese recipes. Their blog became immensely popular and, in 2016, hit over a million page views per month. “At the time, there really weren’t a ton of resources in English that explained how these dishes were made,” Sarah tells me, reflecting on when she started the blog in 2013. “For the first two years, I would get excited when 100 people were on the site,” she laughs.

“People were really enjoying it and finding it valuable, and it was really making a difference for the people they were cooking for and for themselves,” Kaitlin says. The family puts an immense effort into making recipes accessible for readers who can’t find a certain ingredient or tool. These limitations, Sarah says, challenges them to expand their perceptions of what’s possible in a home kitchen. It also inspires them to come up with creative workarounds using techniques and methods from other cuisines.

The Leungs use an Italian pasta roller to achieve paper-thin wonton wrappers. They rely on chicken bouillon paste in their shortcut dan dan noodle sauce, and they aren’t afraid to tell their readers to use spaghetti in place of Chinese wheat noodles.

Their version of the Cantonese classic clay pot rice (bo zai fan)—one of my favorite recipes from their book—is made in a cast-iron skillet in lieu of the traditional clay pot. The Leungs describe the comforting meal as “the rice bowl to end all rice bowls” in the book. As the rice steams, the fat from the meat seasons each grain, making each bite a deeply flavorful one. For people who don’t own the clay cooking vessel but would like to make this dish, the recipe is a blessing.

Similar to the conventional method, their recipe tells cooks to soak jasmine rice for an hour before placing it in a skillet with water to simmer. As the rice cooks, the bottom crisps up, assisted by several teaspoons of neutral oil. Sliced Chinese pork sausage, liver sausage, cured pork belly, and a drizzle of slightly sweetened soy sauce complete the dish.

While traditional clay pots have a smaller base, using a cast-iron skillet with a greater surface area means the rice cooks and crisps up more evenly. The best bites contain both tender and crunchy morsels of rice, along with pieces of sweet, savory cured meat. The dish is often eaten with some blanched greens, like Chinese broccoli or choy sum, and depending on where you go, it’s sometimes available with steamed chicken and shiitake mushrooms in addition to the cured meat.

“My cast-iron skillet is on my stove at all times, Sarah says, “and it’s something a lot of home cooks already have in their kitchen.” The bo zai fan is proof that you can cook food that feels and tastes nostalgic with what’s available in the aisle of an American supermarket, even if you don’t have the exact right tool or ingredients for the job. “Food is never just about the recipe,” the Leungs write in their book. “It’s also about how you enjoy it, share it, and pass it on.”

Hong Kong-Style Crispy Rice Skillet

food, amazon, make the crispiest clay pot rice in a cast-iron skillet

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