I’m often asked what kind of oil I use for cooking up Asian dishes. This typically happens when I’m about to deep-fry or stir-fry so my immediate response is canola. In retrospect, I should be more clear. There are three cooking oils that I reach for most, and they sit right next to my stove.
Canola, sesame oil, and peanut oil. That’s the order that I have the oil in their refillable bottles. The bottles are recycled wine bottles outfitted with liquor bottle pourers.
Why those three oils?
Canola oil has a neural flavor and high-smoking point. It’s good all-purpose oil. Some people favor vegetable oil, which is basically soybean oil. Corn oil is heavy, though its heaviness reminds me of the unrefined rapeseed (canola oil) that I’ve seen sold grocery stores in Sichuan, China. Yes, it’s true, not all people in Asian cook with peanut oil. Soybean oil is also very popular in Asia.
Next in line is sesame oil, specifically dark, toasted sesame oil. Some Indian recipes call for golden colored sesame oil called gingelly. For the rest of Asia, the darker, toasted sesame oil made from white sesame seeds is preferred. That’s my sesame oil too. I like Japanese Kadoya brand, though you may find a Chinese brand that you like. There’s black sesame oil too, which has a slight bitter edge that’s quite pleasant.
Then there’s semi-refined peanut oil, which you pretty much have to buy at a Chinese market. Lion and Globe and Knife are popular brands. This oil has a wonderful peanut flavor and it is semi-refined so it cannot heat up as hot as fully-refined peanut oil you buy at supermarkets. Spectrum sells an unrefined peanut oil that’s absolutely delicious, practically like liquid peanut butter. I have blended it with canola in a 2:1 ratio and used it straight. The unrefined oil cannot be used for deep-frying, though I have used the semi-refined stuff and heated it to smoking for batches of homemade chile oil.
You could make a cheater’s peanut oil by frying peanuts in some canola or refined peanut oil and that will imbue those oils with some peanut goodness. Cookbook author Pat Tanumihardja’s mother taught me to do that. When she owned a catering company and small Indonesian restaurant, Mrs. Tanumihardja fried a lot of peanuts up in a giant wok. When I asked her what she did with the oil, she told me that she reused it. It was flavored by the peanuts and fabulous for cooking.
I once asked my mother if she ever cooked with peanut oil in Vietnam. She laughed and said, “We used to grow peanuts to eat. How would we have pressed the oil into oil? Pork fat is what we used. If we were lucky, we had chicken fat.”
I also love poultry fat for stir-frying. I save the rendered fat from roasted Peking duck or deep-fried Sichuan duck. If I have some chicken fat or skin, sometimes I’ll render it on the spot for fat to stir-fry with. Chicken fat and greens is divine. The fatty skin from a purchased Cantonese roast duck can be cooked in a skillet to obtain wonderful fat too. Also remember that whenever there’s skin, there are also cracklings to be had. Delicioso.
Pork fat is hard to find these days so I go to a good butcher and buy fatback. Right now, I have beautiful fat from locally grown pigs in my freezer. I cut them into white chunks and keep them in a zip-top bag. Pork fat is needed for har gow shrimp dumplings, Vietnamese nem nuong grilled meatballs and certain Viet charcuterie.
Oh, of course we have olive oil. And, most recently started buying grapeseed oil. But those sit on the counter opposite my stove. Sometimes I sub grapeseed oil for canola.
Now that I’ve shared my go-to cooking oils and fats, what are yours and why?
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