The Oily Chinese Food Debate: Healthy or Not?

Oily Dumplings

As the world turns its eyes on China, and all parts of developing Asia, increasing numbers of Westerners are traveling here and getting a taste of it for themselves, literally. As tasty as the dishes may be, foreign guests have started deciding for themselves that Chinese food might just be “a little too oily to be healthy.” I’m personally biased and in favor of Asian food traditions, but I do think the argument deserves a fair bout!

Round 1, Ding!

When friends visit China their #1 concern about the food is sanitation, but also the oiliness. The picture to the right is one rather oily example. To satisfy their curiosity, and mine, I decided to ask some Chinese friends what their take is on this matter. I’ve listed their responses to common concerns that are voiced by Westerners (American friends, specifically):

1. There is simply too much oil in the food. How can this be healthy? The initial response to this question is:  Yes, there is oil on the food, but we don’t eat it. It just sits in the dish. Its not like a soup you drink or a gravy that you might put on potatoes.

2. How do you avoid eating much of the oil? People here use chopsticks for food that is sitting in broth or oil. We just let most of the oil drip off of the food first. The portion of rice you eat is important too. The combination of  roughly 30% staple and 50% main dish and 20% liquid (soup or water) are important to note here.

3. Doesn’t the oil get on your rice too? The oil can sometimes drip on the rice, but that is not how rice is consumed here. Normally people take pure, white, cooked rice with their food. This soaks up oil or other strong flavors from the food and protects your stomach. Fried rice is not a substitute for white rice either; and spooning the sauce of any dish into your rice is never done.

A case of misunderstanding: I remember making green beans with sausage bits and a simple cabbage dish for my family last Christmas. I also made white rice to go with it, of course. The salty/oily sauce that went in the green beans dish was irresistible to my grandmother, who is an amazing cook of Mediterranean food. But when I explained that “the rice soaks up the sauce”, she immediately tested my claim; she took a spoon and proceeded to pour the sauce over her rice… moments later… “Mmmm, it is sure does!” she said.

Chinese Green Beans

4. My friend went to China and gained weight. Why? The major reason Westerners gain weight in China is because of mixing food habits. We all try to assimilate to the local food culture at first, but we soon begin missing the dishes from home. Some people go back to convenient eating habits, like sandwiches for lunch. Others miss cheese and butter and other processed foods, so they might visit the foreign food store every few weeks or so. These actions have inescapable consequences.

Ben’s Opinion: Food culture is special and synergistic: more than the some of its parts. Using our own (American) nutritional logic to understand how on earth the Chinese (Koreans, Japanese, Vietnamese, etc.) could be so healthy would be a mistake. We shouldn’t use a microscope to look at how a system works. We should be looking at the big picture here. From that perspective, I would say, whatever these food cultures are doing… they are doing it right!

Please add your thoughts, comments, and rebuttals below. Thanks!

  • ben.piscopo

    A great discussion around a Sichuan dish called “Ma La Yu” is also brewing at a Fuchsia Dunlop’s blog. She makes some good points as well.

  • jillcohen222

    I am glad that I inspired a blog post. Not sure I am convinced, having experienced Chinese cuisine live for myself, but I do commend your effort. Vietnamese is a personal favorite, but generally speaking if there are rice or noodles involved, I will probably enjoy it.

    • ben.piscopo

      You are so worth a blog post Jill! ^^ Happy Birthday!

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  • I apologize, but absolutely none of these comments even come remotely close to addressing the topic. I don’t recall a single person making the claim that the Chinese were literally imbibing the oil… It’s just that compared to Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, etc… the oil they use is an astronomical sum. They let it drip off the meat? Yeah, but the meat still absorbed quite a lot of oil. The rice absorbed it? Are you actually amazed by this? What did you think was gonna happen? That the rice was gonna repel it or something? Guess what, they are now eating the rice/oil hybrid, so they’re still eating oil. Once again, noone claimed that they were eating a flood of oil, but saying that they eat only 40% of the flood still makes that a pretty hefty deluge, no? 

    I don’t know a single Japanese or Korean that isn’t warned before a trip to China to take some extra seasoning or sauce to ameliorate the greasiness/oiliness of the food. Of course, you don’t drink it, we’re not retards, the point is that all the oil they use seeps into the food.

    While I can appreciate your personal stance on Eastern cuisine, and I personally largely agree with you it’s erroneous to lump Chinese, Korean, and Japanese cuisine into a “healthy” cuisine as even native Chinese food is incomparably unhealthy especially compared to Japanese food. 

    C’mon, we’re Americans… we just invented the Baconator, a sandwich that’s 2,580 calories… just because Chinese cuisine is healthier than American cuisine doesn’t exactly means it’s healthy. It’s a culture that created tea not just for taste but to filter out all the oil they consume for Christ’s sake.

    I’m sorry, and I know you’re not claiming to be an expert, but this article just had so many errors. And people on the sidebar saying that oil is healthy… this isn’t exactly extra virgin olive oil, they’re using. People are delusional if they think Chinese food in the Mainland is somehow healthy.

    • Anonymous

      Hi Jack, 
      I’ll try to straighten out the argument a little… although I’m not sure where to start!

      You’re right that the cuisine of China, Korea, and Japan shouldn’t be lumped into one “healthy” category, but they are regionally similar. We create categories like this all the time when discussing food and dieting. “Mediterranean” cuisine comprises at least a few countries in Europe that share a similar staple and cooking methods. Of course, local cultural norms and expectations of what “fat” means can certainly shape the bodies of a certain area; therefore, I’ve decided to use general terms here for “Asia”.The big picture is that Asian cuisine, in its traditional form, promotes a healthier lifestyle than American cuisine. I think we see eye-to-eye on that. 

      About whether other Asian countries’ food is healthier than Chinese is very debatable, since there are hidden skeletons in every cuisine’s closet, so to speak. Koreans love fried chicken restaurants, from my experience. And Japanese deep fry their vegetables on occasion. Thais have some tasty deep-fried options as well. All of these countries are consuming more processed foods than ever before, which is common in a western diet.

      Oil intake should definitely be limited and there are times when I prefer the Cantonese style “Qing Dan” cooking, which is light in flavor and never spicy. It’s important to note, too, that eating out at a Chinese restaurant is considered “unhealthy” by local standards. Eating out every day is harmful to your health, although most travelers aren’t lucky enough to experience home cooking for most of their journey. 

  • alex1110

    Chinese food is oily and dirty if you had ever worked in a Chinese restaurant you’ll know what I’m talking about.