Taiwanese Cuisine: Extra virgin oils from the old days

Forty years ago, my family lived by the Tamshui river, where used to be the center of the city. I don't remember seeing any convenience stores or supermarkets. When my grandmother or my mother were cooking, and found out there wasn't any more oil in the tin, they usually sent the other kids or me to buy some oil from the nearby grocery store.

We always run to the store with some small money and the oil tin in our hands. When the owner saw my little oil tin, right away she knew I needed some oil for my mother. She opened the lid of a big oil can, and refill my oil tin, the tin was only enough for 400ml. I remember I was too small to reach the counter, not tall enough to see what's inside the big oil can.

The stores only sold peanut oil, white sesame oil, black sesame oil and camellia oil. Peanut oil was commonly used for everyday cooking. White sesame oil was occasionally used for adding flavor and fragrance to the dishes. Black sesame oil was always used for winter cooking (and postnatal cooking). But Camellia was not only used for everyday cooking, adding fragrance, winter and postnatal cooking, but also for its great nutritional benefits.

After the first supermarkets and convenience stores began to open up, I never needed to buy the oils for my mother with the little oil tin again. People's diets also changed. Soy oil became the most commonly used cooking oil. All the old hand-pressed oils that people used to enjoy were too expensive compared to the mass produced oils. And the new manufactured oils were all nicely packed in their bottles, who would want to buy oil in a greasy old tin?

I remember every time my mother cooked, she only used tiny bit of oil, because cooking oil was precious. And she rarely deep-fried food, because it's too wasteful. Forty years ago, there were few overweight people, and not many people had heart diseases caused by bad cooking oil.

Many older people said after they got used to refine oils such as soy oil, the cooking stove become not only greasy, but sticky, like glue. They have to remove the grease with very strong detergent. But when they used to cook with lard or peanut oil, the grease could be easily wiped away with some soap and water. And nowadays, most of the peanut oil and sesame oils are blended with soy oil, for only one reason: it's cheap. But soy oil doesn't add any more fragrance or nutritional value to the peanut oil and sesame oil. We can use as much of this blended oils as we want, without worrying about it's price, but it's not as fragrant and nutritional as it used to be.

About ten years ago, extra-virgin olive oil become very popular in Taiwanese cooking. People understand it's great nutritional benefits, they believe cooking with extra-virgin olive oil will protect their families from many diseases which are caused by bad cooking oils. Of course, extra-virgin olive oil is fairly expensive compared to those other mass-produced oils.

Cooking with good oils is a new trend, but not many people realize that using high-quality oil was the normal way of doing things for hundred of years in Taiwan. The oils in the grocery stores were all actually extra-virgin oils, made from peanut, sesame and camellia and so on, and this was the only oil making process people knew.

Forty years later, people are all looking for good, healthy cooking oils. Compared to paying for medical treatment, extra-virgin peanut oil, sesame oils, and camellia oil don't seem so expensive any more.




Photo by Joyce Tay


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