So if you’ve ever heard of China’s Foundational Rapeseed Oil, what you’re probably talking about is an oil made from the Brassica Napus plant, commonly called oilseed rape.
It itself was a mix between the cabbage brassicas and the turnip brassicas and likely hit the scene about five hundred years ago in Europe.
People in Europe weren’t really too into the taste though, so while it did pop up for cooking in places, it was mostly used
for fuel and lubricant.
All well and good, until researchers in the early sixties, discovered that one of the compounds in rapeseed, and mustard seed oil for that matter, erucic acid, could potentially damage the heart.
What Is Rapeseed Oil?
Now I am very much not a toxicologist so I’ll try my best not to editorialize this part too hard here but apparently after feeding
rats up to 70% of their daily calories in the form of high erucic acid oil those rats developed some short term heart problems.
Some follow up studies confirmed the effect in piglets, and so, of course, rapeseed oil was banned for human consumption in the
The United States and many other Western countries, despite basically all later studies finding zero links between erucic acid and heart disease.
To a rescue came a pair of researchers from the University of Manitoba who developed an oilseed with far less erucic acid by crossing it with Brassica Rapa or Turnip Rape.
They proudly called their new oil Canola, Canadian Low Acid Oil.
The new plant was cheap and easy to grow in North America, so industrial producers could take the seeds, process the living crap out of them into a tasteless neutral oil and that is what’s on your grocery store shelf today.
Let’s back up a bit, tell the Chinese side of the rapeseed story.
The first recorded use of caiziyou dates back to the Qimin Yaoshu at the time of the Northern Wei when it was a common cooking oil together with Perilla, Hemp, Almond, and Sesame.
This plant, however, was called Man Qing which corresponds to modern field mustard, Brassica rapa subsp.Oleifera.
Now fast forward to the late 19th century, when European traders introduced their Brassica Napus oilseed rape to China.
In order to get the plant to grow better in the local environment, farmers crossed the imported oilseed with the local field mustard
to get this: a cultivar that’s known in English as semi-winter rape.
But check out the cool symmetry here.
Both canola and Chinese semi-winter rape are crosses between Brassica Napus and Rapa.
And just like canola by happy accident, this cultivar is also significantly lower in erucic acid than oilseed rape.
Not quite as low as the Canola varieties, but you know comparatively close.
Now enter capitalism.
See, if you want to be a player in the global rapeseed game, you gotta play by the global rapeseed rules so graciously bequeathed to us all by the culinary cardinals at the FDA.
Which’s generally a maximum of 2% erucic acid 10%?
Not good enough, past few decades of research be damned.
So around the time of China’s entrance into the WTO, the Chinese government explicitly wanted to get farmers to use low acid strains, either the Canadian varieties or hybrids, so these days about two thirds of Chinese rapeseed is low acid.
Industrial oil producers then use a blend of these two seeds to get their oil on the right side of the bar.
So is caiziyou “rapeseed oil”?
I mean in some ways it’s weirdly a lot closer to Canola.
But if you imagine canola oil in your head, you’re probably imagining a bland, flavorless oil.
Is definitely not that.
The real difference is in the production.
So step one to a Chinese caiziyou production is toasting.
Traditionally this would be done in a wok, but nowadays one of these machines is usually used, and roasted until the seeds hit about 120 centigrade.
Especially when using the Chinese semi-winter rapeseed, this roasting process helps volatize some of the sulfur compounds that can sometimes give rapeseed oil a bit of an off-taste.
The oil’s then extracted using an expeller press, obtaining this sort of oily sludge as an end result.
Then that’s tossed in a centrifuge to separate out the oil, then filtered again to remove any solids remaining… and that is how you
Now these days you can actually still find some people making traditional European rapeseed oil, particularly in the UK and Ireland.
These oils are cold-pressed then filtered, kind of akin to extra virgin olive oil.
See, expeller pressing heats up the oil in the process, which removes impurities but also flavor.
Keeping the whole process under 122 centigrade retains both so you do get a bit more of that rapeseed nuttiness but at the cost of
a very low smoke point.
Which is, unfortunately, kind of a no-go for Chinese cooking.
Making Canola oil, meanwhile, is more or less an industrial process.
The seeds are first steamed, and the oil’s then extracted using a hexane solvent, which is more efficient than either cold or expeller
At that point, it’s then refined, bleached, and deodorized.
First up is refining, or neutralization, which’s accomplished by washing it with a strong alkaline such as sodium hydroxide which bonds with the free fatty acids in the oil to form soap – which’s then removed and leaves the oil with its characteristic neutral flavor.
After that, the oil’s bleached which sounds scary but really just means passing it through a clay material meant to naturally bleach
like fuller’s earth or activated charcoal.
At that point, it’s deodorized by heating the oil up to around the smoke point and passing steam through it to remove any last vestiges
And that is canola oil.
While it’d be nice, unfortunately, Western supermarket canola oil is far from a direct caiziyou substitute.
So.For home cooks outside of China, you’re left with three choices depends on your level of obsessiveness.
For the Sichuan food diehards, if you’re in the US at least it’s difficult but still possible to find Caiziyou.
We’ve heard reports that big jugs are at least sometimes available at the Great Wall supermarket chain, so if you live in one of
these cities, that’s something to check out.
Also, as of about a week ago, the online retailer Mala Market started legally importing caiziyou and selling it on their website.
It’s the first time I know that it’s actually available online, which’s really potentially a gamechanger.
Full disclosure that we do cooperate with Mala market – they give discounts to our Patrons – but trust me that even if we had zero
connection with them I’d still be yelling this good news from the rooftops.
Seriously, check them out they also sell Sichuan erjingtiao chilis on there, which’s another fundamental but hard to find Sichuan
Now if you want to dial the obsessiveness back a bit, there is one potential substitute for Caiziyou that we’ve found hits most
of the same notes: Indian mustard seed oil.
It’s got the same sort of pungency and nuttiness as caiziyou, but it does have that distinctive mustardy nose hit.
Luckily that mellows out a lot after cooking, so definitely an option.
Unluckily though, mustard seed oil has to deal with an even bigger erucic acid headache than caiziyou, because mustard seed doesn’t really have any low acid varieties.
Fortunately, they do seem to successfully skirt around the issue because – the stuff also has traditional religious usages in Northern
So you can buy mustard seed oil, but the FDA makes them carry the label “for external use only”.
Because of course, you know, you’re totally just going to buy this stuff for traditional Bengali massage.
But suppose you want to dial the obsessiveness back even further.
Let’s say you don’t really care much about mimicking the exact flavors of Chengdu and you just want to, I dunno, make a tasty Mapo Tofu.
In that case, just do what many Chinese restaurants outside of China seem to do and just use Peanut oil.
It’s got a great balance between flavor and smoke point, it’s a perfect all-purpose oil just know that there’s a little that’s
being lost in the translation.
So many Chinese recipes call for cooked Caiziyou because it has a more earthy taste and then less of a pungent obvious taste than raw Caiziyou.
In stir-fries you don’t really have to use cooked caiziyou because the oil will heat up anyway but for something like chili oil you do want to cook your caiziyou.
So what you do is that you heat the oil up to ~220 degrees centigrade, where it’s like a lot of smoke coming out, let it go on for
about a minute and then shut the heat down.
And then let the oil come down to the temperature you want it to be.
Uh, so right.
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