It's about time fried rice was liberated from its image as brown take-out food with soggy bean sprouts that more or less strangle whatever the main ingredient is supposed to be -- the shrimp in "Shrimp Fried Rice," for example.

First of all, fried rice needn't be soy sauce brown; it needn't even be Chinese. It can be a simple side dish such as rice saute'ed with cumin seeds in a little light oil and seasoned with salt and freshly ground pepper. Fresh peas could be added, or a finely chopped chili pepper. Fried rice can be as versatile as pasta.

Traditionally fried rice is a way of using leftover rice. In fact you have to start with leftover rice, preferably rice that has spent the night in the refrigerator so the granules can be separated easily by hand. Other ingredients don't have to be leftover although they can be. The rice should be regular long or short grain. The texture of converted rice doesn't hold up well since saute'ing it for fried rice would mean a third cooking; it's partially cooked before you buy it.

You're limited only by your imagination in making fried rice. The basic steps are simple: First break up cold cooked rice into individual grains. Then cut and assemble your other ingredients. These may include meat that is sliced thinly, diced or ground, seafood such as shrimp, vegetables cut into small pieces, seasonings including fresh herbs and oil (or fat or butter).

Heat a heavy skillet and add three or four tablespoons of oil. When hot add meat and vegetables, and saute' until partially cooked. Add seasonings and stir briefly. Then add rice and continue to stir rapidly over high heat. Adjust the seasonings and continue to cook. The moist hot rice will finish cooking the other ingredients. When the dish is piping hot -- the whole process should take 6 to 10 minutes -- serve and eat quickly.

The familiar Chinese-American-style fried rice is brown because of a little dark soy sauce, and you can add it if you like. But the more refined Chinese fried rice is white, without soy, sometimes called Hangzhou fried rice. SIMPLE FRIED RICE WITH CUMIN AND PEAS (4 servings)

3 cups cooked rice

3 to 4 tablespoons olive or peanut oil

1/2 tablespoon cumin seeds

1 small chili pepper, chopped, seeds and all

1/2 cup peas, fresh or frozen

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Break up the rice into grains with your hands and set aside. (It's easier if it has been refrigerated for several hours or overnight.)

Heat a skillet and add the oil. When hot add the cumin seeds and stir briefly. Add the chili peppers and stir for another 30 seconds. Add the peas and continue to stir, then the rice and seasonings. Stir over high heat for 3 to 4 minutes until piping hot. Serve. HANGZHOU (WHITE) FRIED RICE (6 servings)

4 cups cooked rice

1/2 pound medium shrimp

2 Chinese sweet sausages

6 tablespoons peanut oil

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1 cup chopped scallions, green part included

2 tablespoons oyster sauce

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon white pepper

1 cup bean sprouts, plucked of heads and tail-like roots

Break up the rice into grains and set aside. Peel and cut the shrimp in half lengthwise and set aside. Cut the sausages on the bias into slices no more than 1/4-inch thick.

Heat a wok or skillet. When hot add 2 tablespoons of the oil. Add the shrimp and cook, stirring just until they curl and turn pink. Remove with a slotted spoon. Most of the oil should be left; if not, add a teaspoon or so and turn the heat to high. After a pause add the eggs. Scramble rapidly and remove while still soft.

Wipe out the pan and heat again. Add the remaining oil. When hot, add the sausages and stir over high heat for 30 seconds. Add the scallions and stir briefly, then add the rice. Stir for 30 seconds. Add the oyster sauce, salt and pepper, and return the shrimp and eggs. Stir this rapidly for 2 minutes until well blended and piping hot. Turn off the heat, stir in the bean sprouts and serve.