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I've Always Known That Chili Crisp Was Pantry Magic

I've Always Known That Chili Crisp Was Pantry Magic

Why the Chinese classic is popular on seemingly *everything*—plus, how to make it at home

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Xueci Cheng

Xueci Cheng

Food Editor at Kitchen Stories

Over the last few years, no matter where I've been scrolling, I keep stumbling upon rave reviews of chili crisp. Chili crisp is a condiment seen as a variation of chili oil, but one that contains generously crunchy, spicy bits—as the name suggests. The talk started with Lao Gan Ma, a brand from Guizhou, China, and maker of the cult, jarred chili crisp. Then, newcomers in the age of the Internet pantry such as Fly by Jing and Momofuku joined the party and since, chili crisp’s status has been enshrined in the pandemic as a handy meal-upgrader. And no surprises, it’s still trending.

The iconic Lao Gan Ma chili crisp wasn’t so well-known outside of China until recently. Only one or two decades ago, Chinese who traveled or lived overseas would pack Lao Gan Ma in their suitcases as a quick fix for homesickness, or mostly, in case Western food wasn’t to their taste. It was among the first pantry items I bought after moving to Berlin and heralded a new chapter of living alone in a foreign country. Now, it even pops up on ice cream. For me, who has only ever seen chili crisp as a humble, fixed feature of the home kitchen, watching the hype feels like millenials eyeing 90's-clad Gen Z and thinking: “Wait, that's trending?”

What is chili crisp?

Chili crisp is fiery, crunchy, and packs just the right amount of tingly sensation. It’s a pantry staple that takes different forms in Southwestern and Northwestern China. Back home in Sichuan, an enamel mixing bowl filled with luscious red chili oil with sedimentary youlazi (oily chilis), was always lying on the kitchen counter, ready to be scooped into. There were times when I witnessed my grandma making it, equal parts amazed and frightened by the sizzling hot oil. The formula is quite simple: pour smoking-hot rapeseed oil (flavored with spices and aromatics) over sun-dried chilis. Chili oil and crisp are often used for noodles and cold dishes. Even when salty pickles are served, a slather of red oil from the bowl is indispensable.

Lao Gan Ma brought it to more households across China, with the rise of spicy cuisine in Chinese metropolitans and Chinese restaurants in rest of the world, for example, the UK. The store-bought jars often contain more bits like peanuts, sesame seeds, and sometimes MSG to add umami. You can spoon it onto virtually anything to boost the flavor of whatever's on your plate. It becomes addictive—I’ve been known to eat it straight from the spoon. Before the pandemic hit, I kept one jar of chili crisp in my office locker to spice up often bland-tasting delivery food or to make a bowl of easy noodles on a whim. For a while, a newly discovered chili crisp, a particularly numbing number, called Chuan Nan (川南) caused a stir among my colleagues.

How to make it at home

After being gifted jars of homemade chili crisp, I started my quest to make my own at home. Surprisingly, it’s not complicated at all and one jar lasts for a few months. Check out the video below to learn more or click here for the full recipe.

Homemade chili crisp

Homemade chili crisp

  • 02:20 min.

What are the right chilis for chili crisp?

In Sichuan, where I’m from, chili crisp is commonly made with a mix of different locally-grown chilis, among which are erjingtiao (a long, thin chili) and denglongjiao (a lantern shaped chili). They're unfortunately not available in Germany, so we used the ones labelled "Sichuan dried chilis" from our local Asian grocery store.

Look for bright, fragrant, but not overpoweringly spicy dried chilis. We learned our lesson when using Indian bird’s-eye chilis when testing. The outcome: everyone in test kitchen cried. Mexican dried chilis are decent alternatives; chef Sohla El-Waylly used the mix of árbol chilis, dried chilis, japones and dried Kashmiri red chilis in this recipe on Serious Eats.

A shortcut is to use pre-packaged chili flakes, a la the method used for these cold noodles. But, I would still recommend using Sichuan chili flakes, if possible. Another worthy trick is to mix in some gochugaru (Korean red chili flakes); your chili crisp will turn out stunningly red. Or as suggested by Chinese Cooking Demystified, mix in one or two tablespoons of sweet paprika powder.

The aromatics and seasonings for chili crisp

Besides its heat, chili crisp has a more complex taste profile thanks to the aromatics and spices infused in the oil. I use standard scallion, onion, ginger and garlic; and spices including a cinnamon stick, Sichuan peppercorn, star anise, and a bay leaf. If you don’t have the whole spices, add 1 - 2 teaspoons of Chinese five spice powder once the chili crisp has cooled down. Salt is not included as in the classic Sichuan style, leaving some room for soy sauce and salt to be added to the finished dish later. However, if you’d like to, you can add salt or MSG to it.

Where chili crisp gets its crunch

The reputation of the condiment owes much to the crunch which comes from the coarsely-cut chilis, sesame seeds, and peanuts. You can substitute them with toasted sunflower seeds, ready-made crunchy soybean or fava beans (the latter make a great addition as they stay crispy even soaked in oil), or, just reserve the fried garlic slices and add them back in once the oil has cooled.

The oil and temperature

Traditionally in Sichuan, a typical virgin rapeseed oil (caiziyou) is used, which again is hard to locate outside of the region. The closest thing we could find is cold-pressed rapeseed oil. Lao Gan Ma uses soybean oil, so any kind of neutral vegetable oil will work. Two methods are there to choose: for the Sichuan pour-over method, the oil should reach 325ºF/160ºC, or even higher to 350ºF/175ºC before pouring over the chilis. The other method some chefs employ (also said to be the Guizhou method) is to fry the chili over medium heat for a few minutes, which is safer to do. Our recipe combines both. Either way, the chilis should smell toasty not burnt.

Where and how to use chili crisp

The greatest thing, as I’ve tried to convince you, is that chili crisp is so versatile. In my kitchen you can find it used for noodles sauce and dumpling dip, here is the mix: 1/2 tablespoon chili crisp, 1 tablespoon each of soy sauce and rice vinegar, 1 tsp of sesame oil, season with a pinch of salt and sugar. I sometimes add grated garlic, oyster sauce, or sweet soy sauce, depending on my mood.

Here is a list to start:
This Sichuan chicken dish
Eggs in every form
Noodles and rice noodles
Dim sums, especially dumplings
— Salads, like this cucumber salad
— Rice (fried or congee)
— Disappointing takeouts
— Ice cream

Have you tried chili crisp? What’s your favorite way of using it? Let us know in the comments!

Published on March 17, 2021

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