I still remember the eggplant I ate for my second breakfast in Chongqing, China. Thin strips of purple flesh, steamed until just cooked but still decidedly firm, dressed and refrigerated, waiting, until someone like me would come in to eat. The eggplant was beautiful, as was the liquid at the bottom of the plate. It had a deep red hue, fearsome and spicy, but also lustrous and warm. This was Sichuan red oil.
Sichuan red oil is a beautiful, indispensable ingredient. Used to dress cold dishes, finish off stir fries, it’s used across the cuisine almost like salt and msg. During its preparation, oil is stewed with 15+ varieties of aromatic spices, including 3 or more types of dried chilies that individually add heat, flavor, and color. The result is liquid gold, one little teaspoon of which will light up a dish faster than a match. Red oil is an antidote for lethargy, a cure for boringness.
Trouble waking up in the morning?
Try red oil.
Not sure what to use in your dipping sauce?
Go for the red oil.
Red oil is where Sichuan food starts and ends, which is kind of like butter for French food.
Anthony Bourdain writes:
“In a professional kitchen, it’s almost always the first and last thing in the pan. We sauté in a mixture of butter and oil for that nice brown, caramelized color, and we finish nearly every sauce with it.” *
If you watch western chefs, you will see them mount their sauces with tablespoons of this fatty, lustrous gold.
Or if not butter, you can watch them load on the Mayonnaise and its derivative sauces, mountains of which are forced into anything from lobster rolls, egg sandwiches, aioli dipping sauces for French fries, calamari, and other fried foods…
Or take popular mozzarella cheese, which decorate pizzas and caprese by the fistful. (How many calories was in that slice of whole milk fior di lati?)
This is all to say that fat is an incredibly powerful tool in cuisine. It makes food delicious and addicting.
For some reason, there is a myth that still persists across wide swaths of the U.S.: Chinese food is greasy.
My friend. If you think Chinese food is greasy, have you ever walked into a McDonald’s? Have you ever tried a seafood chowder? Do you ever eat pizza? What about ramen noodles?
Do you really know what’s in your favorite sauces?
Yes, Chinese food uses oil, and it does so like every other cuisine on the planet. Next time you consider passing up your favorite Chinese restaurant for something “lighter,” think about what that really means. It’s not about the oil or the calories.
*from Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain (2000)