Many times when I write recipes, I call for canola oil and other neutral-flavored oils like grape seed because I want the other ingredient to shine. But there are situations when you want a flavor-forward oil to partner with other elements of a dish. That’s the case when you’re making simple foods that combine a minimal number of ingredients, say a stir-fry of snow peas and garlic, or when the oil is used as a finishing oil to add a final rich lick and tantalizing perfume.
So along with the neutrals, I have three flavorful Asian cooking in my pantry. I wrote about semi-refined peanut oil last year when we discussed our go-to cooking oils, and just want to reiterate that it’s damn good oil! The brand I buy at Asian markets in California is Lion and Globe’s pure peanut oil. It’s somewhat pricey – about $5 for the small bottle but it’s my secret to making fabulous tasting Chinese-style chile oil.
The chile oil recipe is in Asian Dumplings and Asian Tofu. I use it all the time for dipping sauces, seasoning sauces, and as a homemade finishing oil (use the chile flakes and the oil). Commercially made chile oil is lackluster and frankly a waste of money for what you get in a single bottle. Make at batch at home and keep it around for months! Semi-refined peanut oil lends a wonderful nuttiness to compliment the toastiness of the chile flakes.
Your food will sing with good chile oil. When Charlotte Druckman made the spicy yuba skin recipe from Asian Tofu for her tofu skin story in the Wall Street Journal, she deliberated about using store bought chile oil as a convenience. In the end, she tucked my chile oil into her story because “it makes such a huge difference” in the final dish. I couldn’t agree with her more. If you want to add one Asian cooking oil to your larder, go with the peanut. And, Planter’s is not the same.
If you love regular toasted sesame oil, then try black sesame oil sold at Chinese markets. Yes, the color is darker and so is the flavor, which is slightly bitter on the tongue and earthier than regular toasted sesame oil. At first, I didn’t like black sesame oil because it seemed overwhelming. I kept the bottle around and got to appreciate it over time.
Nowadays, when I want a slightly stronger sesame hit than usual, I use the black sesame oil, backing off a bit because it packs a punch. You can cook with sesame oil (try frying Japanese gyoza dumplings!) or drizzle it onto a plate of fresh-from-the wok kimchi fried rice. Swoon.
Tea seed oil is a bit harder to find than semi-refined peanut or black sesame oil. I buy mine online and it’s got the most interesting, nutty-asparagus like flavor. It’s delicateness shines with simple dishes.
When the oil hits the pan, I like to stick my head over it to inhale the fragrance. There are times when I say, “Wow, I’m getting extra wok goodness with tea seed oil.” I’m sure award-wining author and wok expert Grace Young has an opinion on this.
Tea seed oil is rarely mentioned in Asian cookbooks but it’s a legit Asian cooking oil. I’ve only seen it in Fuchsia Dunlop’s Hunan cookbook and a few sites from Asia mention it. Don’t go looking for tea oil that comes from the Melaleuca plant that’s used for medicinal purposes. Tea seed oil made from a type of Camelia. The tea leaves we drink come from a Camelia. Tea seed oil is sometimes marketed as "stir-frying oil."
Tea seed oil is a subtle oil that seems to really come alive when it’s heated. If you taste it cold, it will seems relatively bland. The Earthy Delights version of tea seed oil has better flavor than say, Republic of Tea, which even the representative I met deterred me from tasting his oil.
I’ve read online that tea seed oil is great for your hair too, keeps it healthy and dark. Maybe I’m onto something by standing over the hot pan while cooking with tea seed oil?
Next time you venture to a Chinese market or thinking of trying new cooking oils, check these out. They’re great to keep around for pumping up flavor and mixing things up a bit.
If you’ve experienced these oil, what are your thoughts?