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.