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When we think of Italy or Spain, we think of olive oil. When we think of India, we think of ghee.

If I was trying to make something that tasted Japanese at home, I wouldn't use olive oil, because if I start with olive oil, that will permeate the whole dish, and it will never taste properly Japanese.

So to make the thing taste of the place, start with the fat of the place.

— Samin Nosrat "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat"

I felt like this was a potentially ill-informed and naive take, since as far as I know, Japanese cooking doesn't really have a characteristic oil or fat. Modern Japanese recipes often use サラダ油, literally "salad oil", which is typically a refined, tasteless canola.

Sesame oil is used in particular dishes, such as 和え物 (dressed dishes), but it is certainly not ubiquitous like it is in Korean cuisine.

Apart from these, particularly in modern dishes, オリーブオイル (olive oil) is indeed used in Japanese recipes, possibly as a response to modern health trends. Also, naturally chicken fat and beef fat have their place, but generally only to complement dishes that highlight chicken meat and beef respectively.

But these are the only cooking oils I generally ever see in Japanese-language recipes.

In the culinary history of Japan, before the availability of neutral, refined oils, what was commonly used as a cooking medium? Is there an oil that would be considered typical of the Japanese flavour profile?

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    It reads to me like not using olive oil (which with its distinctive, sometimes strong, flavour) is key, so a neutral oil is better than that. Still, perhaps the book would have been improved for an example of what should be used
    – Chris H
    Mar 18 at 6:51

2 Answers 2

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It seems that for the historical period before the opening of the country at the end of the Edo period, rapeseed oil was indeed very common, alongside sesame oil and soybean oil, as per the Tokyo Foundation. Relevant quote:

Rapeseed oil has been used in Japan alongside sesame oil and soy oil since shojin ryori (Buddhist vegetarian cuisine) was introduced during the Kamakura period (1185-1333). Its production surged in the Edo period (1603-1868) as Western-influenced fried foods such as tempura and ganmodoki (deep-fried tofu balls) became widely popular.

The Japanese Wiki site for rapeseed mentions that "Rapeseed oil was mainly used as a raw material for paraffin and became an integral part of daily life." (via DeepL translator). So it was also or mainly a lighting oil, not cooking oil, although no explicit primary source is given.

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    This definitely explains why サラダ油 (canola oil, lit. "salad oil") is so popular in Japanese cooking. Insofar as rapeseed oil doesn't have a characteristic flavour, I have to conclude that Japan doesn't actually have a "fat of the place" and that the author didn't pick an especially good example to make their point.
    – jogloran
    Mar 18 at 19:09
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    @jogloran No, it’s actually a really good example. If you go and try to make tempura using lard, or tallow, or olive oil, or peanut oil, it will taste distinctly different from authentic Japanese tempura. The use of a neutral oil is a critical part of how the cuisine tastes, because it still functions as a carrier for hydrophobic flavorants (such as capsaicin, pipperine, or citral) without imparting a flavor of it’s own to the dish. Mar 19 at 2:07
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    It's worth mentioning that the Japanese name for rapeseed is aburana (油菜), literally "oil vegetable/plant". Mar 19 at 3:57
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    Worth noting that historically, rapeseed oil ("canola" refers to a modern product of plants selectively bred to avoid the problem) had a very high erucic acid content (much like mustard oil). English Wikipedia claims that "Historically, it was restricted as a food oil", although it isn't clear if the negative health effects observed in other animals actually occur in humans, nor if these dangers were known to earlier civilizations. But it does taste bitter and couldn't really be called a "neutral oil". Mar 19 at 11:44
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    There is a common trope in the "health food" world that all seed oils are unsafe industrial byproducts that nobody in the world consumed before the 19th century. This answer is an interesting counterpoint to that claim. Mar 19 at 17:23
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Is there an oil that would be considered typical of the Japanese flavor profile?

Since you already quoted Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, I would point to page 72 where the "World of Fat" map has an entry for Japan. It lists neutral oil, and sesame oil for Japan. Canola and soybean oil are both neutral oils, and would have been available in Japan historically.

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    Rapeseed oil would have been available historically, but canola oil has only existed anywhere since the 1970s - it's the result of selective breeding of the same plant, which drastically reduces the erucic acid content of the resulting oil. The historically available oil would have had a bitter taste from erucic acid and could not have been used the same way. Mar 19 at 11:52

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