Chinese food tends to be oily. In north­ern China it’s soy oil, in the south peanut — and from wok-fried to stir-fried to broiled most recipes require at least some oil, many a great deal. Just last night I was at a Sichuanese restau­rant and one of the dishes I ate (deli­cious, I might add) was strips of carp gen­tly stewed in oil with Sichuan pep­per, chili, gar­lic and bean sprouts, and at the end of the meal the serv­ing bowl still had per­haps a half-litre of peanut oil in it. Furthermore, the cus­tom of finely chop­ping ingre­di­ents before cook­ing them allows a greater absorp­tion of cook­ing oil and sea­son­ing and the result­ing dishes, for instance the pop­u­lar ‘fish-flavoured egg­plant’ are sat­u­rated with the fra­grant liq­uid. However oil has not always been used so gen­er­ously, in fact the Chinese tra­di­tion­ally used ani­mal fats and lard when cook­ing, and these only in small quan­ti­ties.

The rise in the use of cook­ing oils has been pro­voked by the eco­nomic growth of the past two decades which has made oil, once scarce and pro­hib­i­tively expen­sive, com­mon and afford­able. This has been com­ple­mented the mod­ern­iza­tion of oil pro­duc­tion and pro­cess­ing, which has made many seed and veg­etable oils cheaper and more abun­dant. The switch to oil also reflects Chinese ideas of the health prop­er­ties of foods, as veg­etable and seed oils are believed to be health­ier than ani­mal fats. The preva­lence of oil in Chinese food is even cited as an expla­na­tion for why Chinese peo­ple are gen­er­ally quite slim com­pared to west­ern­ers, the logic being that oil makes food slip­pery and allows it to pass through the sys­tem, whereas west­ern foods like bread, cheese and meat, being dry and sticky, remain in the body for longer and are absorbed as fat.

The impor­tance of oil in China is fur­ther reflected in the media, with tragic sto­ries of cus­tomers in super­mar­kets being crushed by stam­ped­ing crowds when spe­cials are announced on cook­ing-oils and chill­ing exposes of toxic ‘recy­cled oil’, obtained by pro­cess­ing sewage, which is re-branded and sold or used in restau­rants. So it is not sur­pris­ing that olive oil is becom­ing increas­ingly pop­u­lar in China (imports have increased since 2001 by almost 70% each year), as its health ben­e­fits and the per­cep­tion that for­eign brands assure a guar­an­tee of qual­ity and authen­tic­ity appeal to Chinese con­sumers.

There is, how­ever, con­fu­sion regard­ing the prod­uct; many Chinese are unsure of the sig­nif­i­cance of ‘extra-vir­gin’ or ‘pomace’ when it comes to dis­tin­guish­ing oils, or how their uses in cook­ing vary. This last is espe­cially rel­e­vant as whilst more and more mid­dle-class Chinese are eager to buy imported prod­ucts, they are gen­er­ally unfa­mil­iar with for­eign cook­ing tech­niques. So whereas pure olive oil is a good sub­sti­tute for other processed veg­etable and seed oils and suit­able to the high tem­per­a­tures of Chinese cook­ing, vir­gin or extra-vir­gin olive oil is harder to adapt, as the intense heat of wok cook­ing destroys its flavour and health prop­er­ties, and Chinese food is rarely gar­nished with oil after it has been pre­pared.

Nevertheless the trend is shift­ing, as the grow­ing inter­na­tion­al­ism of major urban cen­tres encour­ages culi­nary aware­ness among mid­dle and upper class Chinese. Events like the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2010 Shanghai World Expo have flooded both cities with for­eign vis­i­tors and com­pa­nies, many of whom are eager to pen­e­trate the Chinese mar­ket. The olive oil indus­try now receives annual expo­sure at the ‘Oil China’ trade fair, includ­ing awards for best oils and live demon­stra­tions of how to use olive oil in Chinese cook­ing. And the pop­u­lar­ity of Italian restau­rants, many of which adver­tise the use of olive oil on their menus, fur­ther encour­ages Chinese con­sump­tion. So, whilst for now olive oil occu­pies only a tiny frac­tion of the Chinese edi­ble oils mar­ket, with the proper mix of good pub­lic­ity and adap­ta­tion to local gas­tro­nomic cus­toms there is enor­mous poten­tial for expan­sion.



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