Who’s calling who greasy?

shui zhi yu - Barshu menu

shui zhi yu - as seen on the Barshu menu

An illuminating little story from Sichuan, told to me by my friend Dai Shuang, the wife and business partner of the Sichuanese chef Yu Bo (who you will meet in the ‘Rubber Factor’ chapter of my ‘Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper’):

A friend of Yu Bo and Dai Shuang’s, an American chef who works in Shanghai, was complaining that many Sichuanese dishes, including mala yu, were too oily. As I’m sure you blog readers, will agree, this is a common western complaint about Sichuanese cuisine, and even Chinese cuisine in general.

Anyway, later that day, Dai Shuang and Yu Bo watched their American friend make some mashed potatoes, and they were incredulous at the amount of milk and butter he added – Dai Shuang said it was so rich she could hardly bear to eat it.

That evening, they offered him some of that classic Sichuan supper dish, hui guo rou (twice-cooked pork), and asked him if he found it oily – he did. So Dai Shuang pointed out that his mashed potato had been full of butter, and that they had been expected to eat it all, whereas with the Sichuanese dish, almost all the oil had remained on the serving dish. Moreover, the oil used in Sichuanese cooking was mainly vegetable oil, whereas in Western cooking it was often less-healthy animal fats. ‘It’s very funny’, she said, ‘The way Westerners think Chinese food is so oily, while we think Western food is so oily!’

Personally, I find I’m often required to rebut the accusation that Chinese food is oily. The best answer, I find, is that:

1. If you use chopsticks to take food from the serving dishes, you leave most of the cooking oil behind. Only Westerners spoon lots of oil onto the rice in their bowls.

2. In very oily dishes like mala yu (a.k.a. shui zhu yu), the oil is used as a medium for the fragrance of the spices – you are not supposed to eat much of it.

3. A well-balanced Chinese meal might include some oily or fatty dishes, but will also include light stir-fries and steamed dishes, plenty of vegetables, and plenty of plain rice or wheat (in the form of noodles and other pasta concoctions, or some kind of bread). You would never eat the equivalent of a huge steak and chips at a traditional Chinese dinner table.

4. Restaurant cooking tends to be richer than home cooking, and you can’t judge a cuisine only by its restaurants. In China, people often host meals in restaurants to show off, to express their generosity and hospitality, or to celebrate – it’s normal under these circumstances to eat rich food. No one really eats ma la yu at home, or if they do, it’s likely to be an occasional thing.

22 Responses to “Who’s calling who greasy?”

  1. Leo

    Interesting! I actually do find a lot of Chinese food oily, but I like it anyways. I wouldn’t sling “oil heavy” as an accusation against Chinese food. Usually, if I make one rich meat dish, I’ll not eat all that much of it in one sitting, taking quality over quantity. Restaurants are, of course, another story and I agree that restaurant food ought be a little more luxurious.

    Interesting how you mention that many Chinese people view Western food as oily. Here in Korea, many Westerners tend to think that the Korean diet is all meat and starch. They look at the Korean barbecue and at convenience foods like kimbap and instant noodles and tend to see that as most of the picture. Looking into soups, stews and steamed dishes, you get a picture that is heavier on the dark green vegetable side than most cuisines anywhere.

    Conversely, of course, Koreans look at the Western foods that have become most popular in Korea – pizza, spaghetti and steak, and see a picture that is heavy on the starch and meat end.

  2. Dikaios Logos

    So happy I found your blog! I always recommend your books to other laowi who like Chinese food!

    As to oily food, I have always pushed number 4 as the main reason oiliness is present. But as a combination of 1 and 4, I think many of these dishes are more sampled than completed. The presentation of more food than will be eaten seems a requirement at Chinese restaurants.

    I also think that I would take oily over the cloying sweetness that industrial agriculture has imparted to many foods in the west. Oil just might be more palatable and more healthy.

  3. Will

    I find most food containg to much fat these days. However I wonder in most European dishes it is because of the ‘taste’. What is the reason that they sometimes use quite a lot of oil in China? Has it got to do with the cooking process? I find the heat in the wok more controllable when you use more oil ie. garlic etc. burns less quick. Like to hear from you on that one.
    Btw i agree that most oil stays on the plate, do make sure your rice doesn’t get soaked 😉

  4. tan

    As a Singaporean Chinese, I find the food in China very oily, that includes Shanghainese, Beijing, Xiamen etc. This sentiment is shared by my fellow compatriots. I was told by expat Singaporeans living in Beijing & Shanghai that they had to give specific instructions to their ayis (domestic helpers) not to drown their home cooked food in cooking oil.

    Singaporean Chinese,
    Hong Kong & Taiwanese food are not that oily as China food, the oil content is kept moderate. So I am now wondering whether the food deprivation suffered during the long Cultural Revolution way back in the 1960s-1970s accounted for the over compensation in high quantities of cooking oil currently used for home & restaurant consumption to make up for lean times suffered earlier. Cooking oil would have been at a very high premium during the Cultural Revolution probably confined to the upper echelons of society, high ranking government officials. Even the use of lard as cooking fat coming from pigs would be hard to obtain, as agriculture suffered badly & farm animals perished at a rapid rate during the Cultural Revolution.

    I am curious to find out whether China newspapers kept archives of food reviews from the beginnings of the republic in the 1920s to just before the outbreak of the 2nd World War to see how the restaurant & home cooked food was described. Better still, if earlier Chinese dynasties have food recipes given to see the amount of lard, probably lard in those days, to gauge how oily the food was.

  5. David Ockey

    One thing that I have learned here in Japan, is that there is more than one way to consider food. Here, there is a “mouth feel” that Japanese consider when dining that I couldn’t really wrap my brain around. However, that puts this “oily” argument in an easier to understand way. With Chinese food, the oil is on the outside of the food. To westerners, that’s a bit strange. Roasts and such (that are full of fat) are a bit dry on the outside. Mashed potatoes seem to mack the “oil” feel, as do most of our foods. However, to an Asian person, such rich food actually tastes oily. They are not used to the rich taste that it produces, and we are not used to the way that their food “feels”. I must admit, because I rarely buy butter anymore (it’s really expensive here) I’ve gotten “unused to” most American food that I used to love.

    Is there too much oil in the food that people love to eat? Yes, there probably is. It’s just a matter of what “mouth feel” you are used to. And if Chinese restaurants are the only experience that someone has had with Chinese food, then they haven’t really had a Chinese meal.

  6. Fuchsia

    Leo – I agree, sometimes it’s wonderful to eat something very rich, but in moderation. And Dikaios – personally, I’d much rather eat some Chinese red-braised pork belly made with traditionally-reared meat, or mushrooms cooked in lard, than a ‘lo-fat’ cereal bar full of weird additives. The really sad thing is that clever advertising and narrow nutritional information has persuaded so many people that the latter is the ‘healthy option’.

    Will – If you add more oil to the wok, it can be easier to cook evenly, and to move the ingredients around. If there’s hardly any oil, it can be hard to coax out the flavour of your seasonings, like garlic or chilli bean paste. Chinese chefs also like to add a little extra oil to the wok at the end of the cooking to give an appetising lustre to the sauce (incidentally, the great Qing Dynasty gourmet Yuan Mei was very critical of this practice). And in the last decade or so, a certain style of Sichuanese cooking, which involves an electrifying drama of chillies, Sichuan pepper and red oil, has been very fashionable. Most people do not eat like this at home!!

    Tan – I think you’re absolutely right about the legacy of the hard years of famine and Cultural Revolution. From the late 1950s until comparatively recently, meat and oil were luxuries – one rural-dwelling friend of mine remembers using a slice of pork fat to WIPE the wok before cooking each dish of vegetables, to give them a little flavour. The fat slice was then set aside to use for the next meal. I’m sure his experience was very common. So yes, you can see the extravagance of contemporary restaurant dining as a kind of backlash, a collective sigh of relief. I have noticed, though, that good Chinese chefs now talk more and more about using less oil for health reasons, so I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before things change in this respect.

    I haven’t specifically sought out restaurant reviews, but if you are interested in pre-war Chinese restaurant culture, try reading ‘Culinary Nostalgia: Regional Food Culture and the Urban Experience in Shanghai’, by Mark Swislocki. It’s extremely well-researched, fascinating, and shocking in places! (Especially the section about ‘Western food’ during that period!).

    David – I agree that Chinese restaurant food in the West is not a good reflection of the way people in China actually eat; and even in China, it tells you little of the way people eat at home.

  7. Hedley Coppock

    I think the western idea that Chinese food is oily comes from the idea that you eat everything that comes on the plate in a restaurant. When you order a dish of fiery hot beef in Sichuan-style restaurant you can see the oil floating at the top. I think us Brits need to be educated on how to eat Chinese food. Just fish a piece of food out of the oily dressing/sauce and eat it, don’t just spoon everything onto a plate of rice. Is this the way that the Chinese readers eat?

  8. Jessie

    Very interesting piece – in Chengdu today this is still one of the complaints of many (cough! ignorant! cough!) expats.

    It reminds me of a line from Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin, the ballet dancer who began his career at the Cultural Revolution-era Beijing Dance Academy. In a letter to his family back in Shandong, he writes about how good the food at the Academy is – that they eat meat at least twice a week, and that at every meal, you can see a layer of oil on the food.

    It also makes me think about the fact that many Chinese people I meet complain that Western food is too sweet – yet I find ding ding tang, many Dongbei dishes, and of course, Taiwanese nai cha, hideously sweet. It’s just what you’re used to I guess…

  9. Fuchsia

    Hi Jessie!
    I suppose for many Westerners it’s weird to have too much sweetness in savoury dishes, with a few exceptions. While for many Chinese it’s weird to have a whole sweet course – I remember the Sichuanese chefs I took to the French Laundry in California (the article is posted on the relevant page of this website) were pretty bored by the succession of desserts, they just weren’t used to that kind of thing.

    For me, the most interesting thing about experiencing gastronomic disgust and suspicion from both sides, is that it shows you that there are no absolutes, and that you can really decide for yourself what you are willing to eat and how you are willing to eat it. The gag reflex tends to be culturally constructed, and can be culturally deconstructed too.

  10. Jessie

    Yes yes I absolutely agree about food preferences being culturally constructed, that as you say, ‘you can really decide for yourself what you are willing to eat and how you are willing to eat it’. It reminds me of when I first moved to China, when it was the really plain foods that I couldn’t bear to eat – mantou, mian tang, and most of all, xifan. Now, I realise that all these foods kind of ‘make sense’ in the context they’re eaten in – and now that I’ve been living in China for over 2 years I too can appreciate them.

  11. Laura

    I’m currently studying Chinese in Beijing and most of our Korean and Japanese classmates have had the most horrific digestive problems because of the Northern Chinese diet which is heavy on wheat and oil, contrary to their diet at home. I grew up eating Cantonese food at home and I’ve never eaten so much heavy Chinese food until I came to Beijing.

    That said, Chinese student life doesn’t include much fatty meat! It’s only served at special occasions and most of our canteen meals are spartan affairs. So when we see fatty meat, we go a little nuts, and consume it at speed only to find that we can’t eat very much, our bodies having adjusted to the absence of meat on a daily basis!

    Yes, I think celebratory Northern food is oily and heavy but locals don’t eat it everyday, unless they’re rich and not health conscious.

  12. Shirley

    I’ve found myself rebutting that before! And it’s irritating when it’s said with a sneer. I often ask the person if they’ve had “real” Chinese food or if they visited some hole in the wall of some suburb. It’s always the latter. And I point out that Chinese cuisine has many steamed dishes. Also, I recently told a friend about this widespread perception, and she said, “Is Chinese food any more greasy than American food?” She’s awesome. Look at mac and cheese and pizza.

  13. yz

    Tan and Fuchsia,

    You are both right. The trend with oily dishes in restaurants and homes is a backlash to the rationing pre 90s.

    I grew up in Shanghai in a relatively well off family. Even so oil and cooking fat was still rare, I still remember my parents rendering out every drop of lard from fatty pork to cook with. We were then given the leftover crispy skin as treats.

    When I went back to Shanghai a few years ago I asked my uncle why everyone uses so much more oil now. His reply was they can finally buy it, and using a lot of oil was becoming a sign of generosity and wealth.

  14. tom

    Interesting… I dont think that its only in China (small percentage of the dishes), food are oily or unhealthy. Consume a lot of everything is unhealthy. Smoking and drinking is unhealthy. Some Indian, English, Scottish, American dishes uses excessively on certain types of ingredients which is unhealthy. I went shopping the other day and came across a Tesco branded ready made meal, potatoes roasted in Goose fat! Have anybody tried out low fat/low calorie food? Wonder what they taste like…I have many friends working in Singapore and they consider Singaporean Chinese food’s standard is similar to UK’s maybe it’s because of the lack of oil usage? even in Hong Kong and Singapore to make Har Gow (Dim Sum) or Wonton chefs uses pigs fat. Why? But this doesn’t mean everyone eats unhealthy food everyday of course people would treat themselves with chocolates from time and time again. Neither should anybody think Chinese people eat oily dishes at a daily basis. In fact from what I know near enough every household in China have Nuiticious herbal Soup quite frequently. Many of them love eating Vegetables! Also they try not to eat out as much to reduce msg consumption. Chinese people are very knowledgeable in taking care of their health. They consume many exotic herbs such as Gin Seng etc. at the same time they love consuming food that are cooked in the most tasteful way. If they cook Gui Yang Style La ZI Ji with little chilli oil would it taste as good?? I mean who would eat fried Mars bars, curries, fish & chips, Meat pie, pizza, kebab, burgers, chocolates, salami, English breakfast everyday? ALOT of people! If oil was used to represent wealth then the majority of Chinese people uses very little oil. We here also eat crispy pork skins – pork scratchings. What I found astonishing is my mother-in-law, from Gui Yang”, is using some type of gadget to gauge the amount of oil used in “home cooking” in order to save costs and cook more healthy food. I’m keen to know if anyone else uses this? Why would a restaurant uses more oil to express generosity and wealth to increase costs? There are more poor restaurants than wealthy restaurants in China. Many Chinese Chefs in the UK have never suffered from the cultural revolution but they still use plenty of oil in their cooking for certain type of dishes. If people uses more oil after the revolution then it must mean that during the event people uses less oil. Crocodiles are served in some of China’s restaurants. The pricey, exotic meat – steamed, braised, or stewed is believed to cure coughs and prevent cancer. “People don’t care about cost”, says manager Wang Jianfei. “They just care about health.” isn’t oil more pricey these days? maybe “all” chinese people aren’t concerned about their own health. People sees the trees but not the forest is like a a “jook-sing” trying to interpret China and Chinese society through his biased, filtered lenses as a Westernized Chinese-singaporean living in a society assigned to China as a Washington Post bureau chief living in privileged expat enclaves.

  15. tom

    Would a Twiced cooked pork eaten in a takeaway carton rather in a plate with skillful carving taste as good? What about a dish is presented in an artistic manner rather than just dumped in a plate? How about chicken with a mountain of chilli’s or small amount of chilli’s? From what I know is in restaurants that caters Cantonese cuisine before removing the food from the wok and placing on a plate they add in extra oil (small amount) and toss the food a couple of times in order to make it more shiny. I see no need to do this in home cooking though.

  16. ShowShanti

    Hi Fuchsia, I love your books. You’re an inspiration and a mentor. I’m in Chengdu right now, for my project, but one of these nights I’d like to go to Yu’s Family Kitchen. Where might I find the address and name of restaurant in Chinese? Much appreciated…

  17. Kristina

    I wasn’t aware of any of this. I don’t know a lot about Chinese cooking, really, and I’m glad I came across it before I encountered ma la yu. It would be just like me to eat it all and wonder at how a dish could be served so oily. Unfortunately, in restaurants, that kind of information isn’t always volunteered, so you might’ve just saved me.

  18. Crunchynut

    how interesting…On the other hand, several of my Chinese friends said western food doesn’t have enough oil. When they first came to the UK, they were always hungry. They said there was no 油水 in their stomach. When I visited Huangshan several years ago, our guide highly praised the stir-fried pak choi served there because it was cooked in lard. She said she had to eat some oily dishes everyday, otherwise she felt like she hadn’t eaten anything.

    I’d prefer to use the word “rich” to discribe western food. The Chinese aren’t used to lots of dairy product, hence not used to the rich flavour of butter or cheese in a dish. Butter and cheese taste much stronger than vegetable oil used in Chinese cooking. However, Chinese people used to use lard in cooking, and considered lard as a luxury. When I was little we used to have egg fried rice topped with lard!Of course people weren’t that bothered about cholesterol level those days.

    In addition, whether the food is oily depends on the region you’re from, and your cooking habit. I always find food from Suzhou region relatively low in fat and salt compared to other regions, especially compared to Hunan, Sichuan, Guizhou and the Northern regions. When I met up with my Chinese friends from Hunan or Sichuan, I had to use much more oil and salt than I normally would, or else they would find it too bland. It may be true to some extent that only Westerners spoon lots of oil into their bowls, but I find many Chinese people love mixing oily and spicy sauces into their rice, too. Or they will keep the spicy oily sauce for noodle soup or vegetable soup, which would soak up fat. Chinese women love drinking pigs trotter soup or chicken soup, and most people would not skim off the fat.

    The key difference is, fat in Western food is usually hidden, whereas fat in Chinese food is usually shown. Many Chinese people still think it’s OK to give kids cookies as breakfasts (indeed you find many cookies in China brand themselves as “healthy breakfast option”). Many parents may not realise how unhealthy cookies are, because the fats are hidden. They only say western food is oily once they saw how much fat is used in baking and certain sauces, or when they can taste the rich flavour of butter/cheese. Westerners think Chinese food is oily because they see the oil floating on the surface. I personally cook Western and Chinese meals 50/50, and somehow always find I run out of oil more quickly if I have been cooking Chinese food for a while, even if I use very little oil compared to the average Chinese family. A simple stir-fried green veg dish consumes more oil than olive oil used for dressing a salad, for example. You can’t over-dress the salad or it will become soggy.

    Of course, like any other cuisine, there are always healthy dishes and unhealthy ones.Deep fried food is oily regardless what cuisine it is!

    PS. some Chinese people say Westerners are fat (and yes they say fat not large or obese) because western food is oily. It’s simply not true. I think the major difference between Chinese and Western diet is that the Chinese eat lots of fruit and veg. It’s not 5-a-day, more like 7-a-day or more. And Chinese people tend to snack on food less fattening, which helps.

  19. Caleb

    I’ve lived in China for 4 years and have eaten all kinds of Chinese food: home cooked (Guangdong, Sichuan), cheap restaurants, expensive restaurants. Aside from steamed dishes and the wonderful, nutrient-rich home cooked soups of Guangdong, it is all much too greasy for my sensibilities, even if I eat it the proper way—letting the oil drip off the food by using chopsticks. Besides, I’m not convinced that the “proper way” is all that effective. Oil is thoroughly cooked into the food and the little bit of oil on the surface of the food, though it provides a desirable sheen, packs a huge caloric punch. There is no avoiding oil when eating fried noodles. Even BBQ and roasted dishes are too greasy, as all marinades and basting sauces are oil based. Of course, compared to hamburgers, fries, and an overabundance of dairy and sweets, Chinese food isn’t any worse than Western food, but compared to a healthier Western cuisine of salads, cooking methods which minimize oil, and a greater emphasis on whole grains, I can say that Chinese food is too greasy, salty, and starchy. For me at least; I’m not making any judgments. Of course, all this greasy food tastes good —no complaints from me. Also, there are healthy options in China, and individual cooks can use discretion, but the underlying issue is the most common method for cooking vegetables: the Chinese stir fry. The high temperatures degrade both the quality of the oil (a problem with reuse in restaurants) and the antioxidant powers of some kinds of vegetables. Even a non greasy stir-fry will use more oil than I would use if I were eating a salad and a vinegar-based dressing with olive oil. Olive oil is also healthier than almost any kind of cooking oil. Fortunately, I’m able to cook for myself and can enjoy Chinese food in moderation.

  20. Justin Lau

    I don’t necessarily agree on the animal fats being less healthy. I’m in the school that saturated fats ARE very healthy for you. But you have to go to the source of the fats/oils. If the fat you are using are from pastured and humanely raised animals (no antibiotics or hormones, organic feed meant for the animal ie. no grain for cows) you will have some healthy delicious fats. Most of the oils created today are heavily refined and break down in high heat. Have you ever smelled oil on a super hot wok, it smells rancid. I’m very interested in finding more information regarding the use of oils in Chinese food history. My mom spoke of eating rice with lard with a cracked egg when she was a little girl in China. This also brings up the history of processed white rice vs brown rice in Chinese cooking. As for healthier vegetable oils sourcing organic, I lean towards organic peanut or sunflower for Chinese cooking and less of it in the wok. I find Chinese restaurants use way too much oil, salt and soy sauce. Properly fermented low sodium organic soy sauce. I also believe organic condiments are a market that needs to be filled. Unfortunately most of these condiments come from China/HK/Taiwan and I wish there were more domestic producers with organic ingredients and less preservatives.

Leave a Reply

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS