Roasted Rapeseed Oil (Caiziyou, 菜籽油)
Mala Market Exclusive
If you've ever been in or near a restaurant kitchen in Sichuan, then you know the distinct and delicious smell of caiziyou, the cooking oil of choice in southwest China. Made from roasted oil seeds, minimally processed, it has a natural dark-amber color and unique, vegetal smell. As Fuchsia Dunlop puts it in The Food of Sichuan, "It has a glorious, toasty aroma that adds an extra dimension to chili oil and all kinds of dishes."
"Caiziyou," roughly pronounced "sigh-zuh yo," simply means vegetable oil, and in Sichuan vegetable oil has traditionally meant rapeseed oil. Rapeseed is the unfortunate English name for Brassica napus, which is known as you cai in Mandarin and yu choy in Cantonese. Yu choy is one of the tastiest Chinese greens and also produces bright yellow flowers and an oil-rich seed.
Although rapeseed oil is one of the oldest edible oils in the world, some strains have a high percentage of toxic erucic acid, which is why Canada came up with a new, low-acid strain of the plant in the 1970s and called it canola, standing for Canada Oil, Low Acid. Later strains of canola were genetically modified to withstand Roundup, and GMO canola has come to dominate the world market. As is most cooking oil, canola is fully refined, bleached and deodorized to produce a neutral oil for North American tastes.
In contrast, this caiziyou from Chongqing is made from low-erucic-acid, non-GMO seeds and is expeller pressed instead of chemically processed. It is definitely not made to be neutral, as the seeds are roasted to accentuate the flavor and it retains its natural color, fragrance and taste. If you are not accustomed to the smell, you may find it very strong when heated. Be assured that the taste it departs to food is real but much more subtle than the smell. But please do not purchase if you are not open to a strong-smelling and -tasting oil.
Chefs in Sichuan generally use caiziyou when making chili oil, though we've found that it darkens the intense-red color that we prize in chili oil and we tend to use a mix of caiziyou and sunflower oil. Chefs say it is necessary to heat caiziyou to its smoke point and then let it cool a bit before making chili oil, to tame the stronger notes of the oil.
When stir-frying, we definitely follow the lead of Sichuan chefs and use caiziyou or half caiziyou and half rendered pork lard. (Pre-cooking is not necessary.) With that combination you've already got a wonderful base of flavor before you've even begun cooking.
Almost never seen in the U.S., this oil requires extra effort and cost to import. This brand of caiziyou is made by COFCO, one of China's largest, state-owned corporations and its largest producer of both canola-style and Sichuan-style rapeseed oils. Note that most of the packaging is in Chinese, and this page serves as the usage guide.
Store in a cool, dry place.
Producer: COFCO Grain and Oil Industry Co., LTD, Chongqing
Size: 900 ml (30.4 ounces)
Ingredients: non-GMO, expeller-pressed, roasted rapeseed oil
We are partnering with Chinese Cooking Demystified to explain and promote this little-known but quintessential Sichuan ingredient. Chinese Cooking Demystified is an instructional Chinese cooking series on YouTube. Chris, an American, and Steph, who is from Guangzhou, live in Southern China and do an exceptional job of teaching Chinese cooking as it's done in China—and not just the usual suspects but the full range of regional dishes. We highly recommend you subscribe to their channel, or even better become a Patron of their work for additional insider content.
Steph and Chris produced this smart explainer video on caizi you.