As a farming nation, Chinese have combined all sorts of vegetables, grains and nuts into cooking. Thus most widely used types of cooking oil are all vegetarian friendly: groundnut oil (peanut oil), soybean oil, sunflower oil and vegetable oil (rapeseed oil). Be aware, I haven’t mentioned sesame oil yet, because the flavour is so strong, Chinese regard it as a dressing oil rather than cooking oil. I will introduce to you later in this post.
Honestly there aren’t many differences among the four types of cooking oil. Unlike olive oil, they are very mild in taste and won’t influence your dish by using any of them. But according to some common Chinese knowledge and my own reading, here are some tiny differences I can squeeze out for you.
1) Groundnut oil:
mostly recommended in Chinese cooking as they can hold the highest temperature from the heat before getting smoky. Imagine you are doing a very quick stir fry dish, you want to seal the freshness of the ingredients as quick as possible, groundnut oil is a great choice to help achieve the heat in your wok. But bare in mind, not every stir fry dish needs to be that quick, normally for frying ingredients which are finely chopped into strips or very small pieces.
Another good thing for groundnut oil is that it can be stored for quite a long time. If you cook Chinese occasionally and not want to use it in other cuisine, it is the right thing to hide in the corner of your kitchen cupboards. On the other side, if you cook with it very often, it might make your face a bit spotty as Chinese believes groundnut oil has a “hot” character (those “yin” and “yang” things, if you know what I mean…)
2) Soybean oil:
widely used in Chinese restaurants and homes as it’s reasonably cheap and has a rich flavour. Also rich in vitamin E and D. But it is quite easy to go bad and you’d better consume it within several months after purchasing.
3) Sunflower oil:
it is said that it has a lot of goodness and especially good for mother-to-be (olive oil may be better, I guess). It has the same problem as it can not be stored for too long.
4) Vegetable oil:
It has the most strong flavour among the four types of oil. I am very familiar with this as I was grown up in Shanghai region where the countryside are full of those yellow flowers every spring. My mum told me those seeds could be squeezed into oil so once upon a time, I believed all the cooking oil is made from them.
Today, as people in many other countries, Chinese are more care about the advantages and shortages of their food types. Quite a lot families start to use mild olive oil in Chinese cuisine, but they very expensive as 100% imported. Some other new products, like combining the major types of cooking oil into one bottle, are also very popular in the market.
Chinese are used to divide dressing oil from cooking oil. You can find the difference in their kitchen cupboards: normally one giant gallon bottle for cooking oil and several little glass bottles for dressing oil. Most of the dressing oil are flavoured oil but the sesame oil. Sesame oil has such a strong smell and flavour thus we only use a tiny bit (usually 1 teaspoon) in a dish. So PLEASE do not use it in stir fry or deep fry, they won’t make your dish more Chinese but more awful.
Other flavoured oil mostly used in Chinese cooking is chilli oil and Sichuan pepper oil, or their mixture. You can buy them in shops or make you own version. Very easy, just heat some cooking oil (maybe groundnut as they can store longer) and dried chilli flake (or smashed dried Sichuan pepper) in a pot, put them on low heat and leave for about 10 minutes (watch the smoke!). Then leave them to cool and pour in a glass jar with the spices. Some people will put toasted sesame seeds in as well for more flavour. If you have better idea, please let me know.