One thing that I noticed about the food in Yúnnán was the unusually fresh oil that was used to stir-fry leafy greens and other vegetables. Normally I don't pay much attention to the vegetable oil in stir-fries, as it rarely adds any flavor, but Yunnanese oil seemed fresh, almost fruity to my tongue. I started to pester my husband and mother-in-law to ask around and find out what kind of oil it was.
Chuan and I stumbled upon the answer ourselves, before much investigation could take place. We were walking along a back alley in Dàlĭ when I noticed an unusual operation taking place: a man was putting a thick, green-black paste through a large press, and a thick green oil was dripping out into a large metal bucket underneath! Chuan stopped and asked them what the oil was from, and they replied: yóu cài (油菜), literally "oil vegetable." Of course it was an oil vegetable! I thought. But which oil vegetable, exactly? Neither Chuan nor his parents had heard of yóu cài before, and the Chinese dictionary that we had brought with us didn't list it, either. A few people we met told us that it was the plant growing along the road leading into Dàlĭ, but as we left town on a bus later that day, I couldn't get a close look at the crops because the bus was moving so quickly. I suspected that it was rapeseed, as they certainly weren't growing sunflowers, and grapeseed or nut oils, like walnut or almond, also seemed out of the question.
Imagine my smugness when I looked up yóu cài in my favorite online Chinese dictionary and found that it was indeed rapeseed that we saw being pressed. Although rapeseed, or canola oil, sometimes receives bad press -- the commercial stuff is highly processed and often hydrogenated -- there was no doubt that this was among the freshest, fruitiest oil that I had ever tasted. I wanted to bring a pint of it home for my own cooking, but my husband convinced me otherwise (there was only so much room in our suitcase, and a good portion of it was already reserved for dried persimmons and hot chilies!). Still, I can't help but think of what a pity it is that so little of the oil that we use here in the United States comes from local sources. In fact, until I traveled to Italy this summer, I had never been in a place where the oil we consumed was made from plants grown and pressed in the area (in Italy, this was olive oil). Oil forms the backbone of most cooking across cultures, and yet I have never really given much thought to where it comes from, or how it comes to us. The effort that it takes to get a liter of oil from the tiny rapeseed is really quite astonishing -- look at the apparatus above! -- and so easy to take for granted when we just pick up a plastic jug of it from under the kitchen sink.
I like to think of where my food comes from, because for so long all I could think about was how many calories were in my meal, and whether or not it would make me gain weight. I like traveling to different countries and seeing how people grow and make their food, because it reminds me that human beings, across cultures, have very different relationships with food -- and yet there are strong similarities, too. I try to share some of my delight in discovering new foods and new ways of eating with the readers of this blog, because I know that you, too, struggle with eating, and sometimes learning about food from a different perspective can liberate us from a single-minded attention on one food or another. So -- oil can be scary. I'm not denying that. But there's more to oil than fat: there's sun and rain and fields and tradition and machinery and molecules and fire. There's the memory of a happy trip, and the taste of future meals, and hard work to come, all in a thin stream of green liquid.