Attending the APEC meetings in Shanghai in 2001, George W Bush is said to have so enjoyed Yangzhou fried rice that he ordered the dish almost daily during his week-long stay. The hotel subsequently renamed it as “Bush’s fried rice”.
A year later Yangzhou’s city cuisine association went a step further, applying to trademark the name Yangzhou fried rice. The move caused a stir in restaurants in Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as the numerous Chinatowns around the world. Grumbling chefs were concerned that the patent, if granted, would mire their restaurants in legal trouble – and all for a dish as generic as sweet and sour pork.
“You can have Jiang Zemin [the former Chinese president who is a Yangzhou native] but not Yangzhou fried rice,” Hong Kong’s Apple Daily wrote at the time.
Singapore’s Straits Times was similarly unimpressed, describing the move as “unacceptable, unreasonable and unbearable”.
The Chinese trademark authority rejected the application, although another attempt was made in 2007. Again it failed but a “certification mark” was awarded in 2008 to standardise the rice offering, albeit only in Yangzhou itself.
The setback hasn’t stopped the city’s officials from trying to capitalise on the dish’s reputation. Last month a group of 300 chefs gathered to cook the world’s largest helping of Yangzhou fried rice (four tonnes of it), taking the record from Turkey (an unlikely competitor, admittedly). But the publicity stunt backfired when organisers couldn’t find enough people to feast on the chefs’ cooking. Leftovers were dumped into trucks and shipped off to farms as pig feed. The problem? The rules set by Guinness World Records stipulate that any record attempt involving cooked food has to be edible and entirely “eaten by humans” or else it won’t stand. After learning of the wastage from photos that went viral online, Guinness stripped Yangzhou of its short-lived title (it held it for only two days).
Local newspapers were also unimpressed by Yangzhou’s publicity push. The People’s Daily weighed in: “Many of the Guinness World Record challenges in China are organised by local governments… what they are doing not only damages the image of the government but also mainstream social culture and values. We must stop these meaningless Guinness World Record challenges.”
The Yangzhou government responded that the challenge wasn’t just a marketing stunt, but also an attempt to underline the rigorous standards required in preparing authentic Yangzhou fried rice.
So what exactly is Yangzhou fried rice, and is it really from Yangzhou?
According to Xinhua, the dish did indeed originate in the city about 1,400 years ago but only in its simplest form.
In the relatively affluent area of Yangzhou, wealthy people liked to have egg fried rice. In its most sophisticated form the dish is prepared as jin-bao-yin, or golden-wrapped silver, in which each grain of rice is covered with a thin layer of egg milk. According to the culinary historian Tang Lusun, egg fried rice was seen as such a delicacy that preparing the dish was the default test before rich families would hire their chefs. It also meant that “Yangzhou” eventually became kitchen jargon for “egg” in some parts of China.
Subsequently the dish spread across the country, taking on many different local adaptations.
When Shanghai businessmen fled to Hong Kong after 1949 they brought their own recipes with them to the British colony. Typically in Hong Kong the rice includes ingredients such as egg, shrimp, diced barbeque pork, green beans or other seasonal vegetables. And it was also in Hong Kong that the dish got its English translation Yeungchow fried rice – Yeungchow being the Cantonese pronunciation of Yangzhou – a name more commonly found on the menus of overseas Chinese restaurants.
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