grease is the word
To many palates, Cantonese food can be distinguished by three main factors: freshness, sweetness and oiliness. For centuries, the two oils most commonly used in Chinese cooking have been fah-sang yau (peanut oil) and chu yau (lard).
Peanut oil adds a distinctive taste to food and, although it is slightly more expensive than most other cooking oils,
its healthy composition (peanuts contain more antioxidants than carrots or apples) ensures it remains the medium of choice for many Hong Kong families.
The peanut originally came from Central and South America. It was brought to Macau in the 17th century by Portuguese traders. From there, cultivation spread into China.
Lard is an ingredient in many seasonal food items. The hyper-rich Cantonese yuet beng (mooncakes; below right) are a popular example; mooncakes ooze with lard in hot weather. Lo por beng (literally 'old hag's cake') also relies on lashings of lard to make its distinctive flaky pastry. Lard has suffered a decline in use due to its unhealthy saturated fat content.
The long-term impact on general health in Hong Kong from these cholesterol-laden items was minimal when pork and lard were primarily
festival or occasional food items. With the increase in the city's affluence, fatty roast pork, lo por beng and other former luxury foods have become everyday fare, with a corresponding rise in cardiovascular disease rates.
Butter and ghee have always been unpopular in Cantonese cuisine, and Chinese cooks used little in the way of dairy products until recently. Many Chinese people believed the consumption of butter and milk made non-Orientals smell bad in hot weather.
Gai fah jee yau (rapeseed oil) is more popular in northern China. Somewhat lower in saturated fat and higher in monounsaturates than other oils, rapeseed is widely used and marketed under a variety of proprietary names, such as Canola.
Ma yau (sesame oil) burns at a much lower temperature than other oils and is used for flavouring. Many Hong Kong cooks prefer stronger-flavoured Malaysian and Singaporean brands to the local product, which is often blended with cheaper oils to lower production costs.
Most of the cheap cooking oils sold in Hong Kong are labelled as 'vegetable oil'; many are derived either from coconut or Guinea oil palm. Palm oil has been termed 'tree lard' because of its high cholesterol levels. In Britain, it was used during the industrial revolution as a lubricant for machines and it is a main ingredient in soap and napalm.