Anyone who has had Chinese chili crisp or chili oil will almost undoubtedly become a fan. This condiment has a cult-like following — and for good reason: It’s a flavor bomb, incredibly nuanced, usually spicy, full of umami and goes with almost anything (yes, even dessert!). Plus, it’s a spicy condiment that typically isn’t vinegar-based, so if you have an aversion to vinegar, you’ll love it even more.
What is chili crisp?
Chili crisp is an infused oil condiment that usually contains crunchy, flavorful bits of peppers, onions or scallions, garlic and other aromatics. “Chili crisp,” “chili oil and “chili sauce” can often be used interchangeably, but generally what differentiates chili crisp is the ratio of crispy bits to oil.
“The chili inside stays crispy, and that’s a large part of the condiment,” said Lucas Sin, chef and owner of Junzi Kitchen and Nice Day Chinese Takeout in New York City, adding that the ratio of crisp to oil is such that you get much more crisp than oil in each spoonful, which creates an addictive texture.
Lao Gan Ma is the most well-known, mass-produced chili crisp. It was created by Tao Huabi, who started bottling it and selling it in 1997 after realizing how popular the condiment was at her noodle shop in the Guizhou province of southern China. It became one of the most beloved condiments in China and soon became an obsession overseas as well. Eventually, Huabi retired as a multi-billionaire and was even voted “hottest woman in China” in 2017 at 70 years old.
While Huabi made chili crisp famous, similar infused oil condiments have been used in China for centuries.
“The most important thing to know is that in China, almost every restaurant makes their own. Each one is slightly different — the chili that they use, the type of spices, the aromatics and even the technique,” said Sin.
For example, Sin explained, chili crisps from southern China are often made with spices simmered in oil, leading to “a beautiful, bright red, more rounded mouthfeel to the chili crisp,” whereas chili crisps from northern China are made by pouring hot oil over spices to activate them.
Many traditional Chinese chili crisps or oils contain ground Sichuan peppercorns, which seduce those who indulge in it with mala: intense heat and numbing sensations that play off each other for a unique sensory experience. Soybean oil or caiziyou oil (known in English as rapeseed oil, a sort-of predecessor to canola oil) is typically used as a base.
Chinese and Taiwanese restaurants around the world, including Junzi, have their own house-made versions which, thankfully, many of them sell.
“Around the holidays, I make a version called Black Label that has a bunch of black ingredients in it, like black lime and black garlic,” Sin said. Junzi sells chili oil featuring spicy tianjin chili flakes and numbing Sichuan peppercorns, in addition to limited edition versions like Sin’s Silk Road Chili Oil, which includes tianjin chilies, turmeric, cumin and fennel.
David Chang’s Momofuku Chili Crunch includes shiitake mushroom powder, adding umami and earthiness. Fly by Jing Sichuan Chili Crisp is an all-natural chili crisp made in Chengdu, China, adds Sichuan peppers, preserved black beans, mushroom powder and sesame oil for enhanced flavor. Sze Daddy by chef Eric Sze of New York’s 886 is a Taiwanese take that features a smoother chili sauce with garlic, scallions, Sichuan peppers and more. San Francisco restaurant China Live has a Chili Bean Sauce that doesn’t have crunchy bits, but is delicious nonetheless, featuring broad beans, spicy chao tian jiao chili pepper and fermented soybean for some divine funk. Even Trader Joe’s has a Chile Onion Crunch — something Al Roker said "changed (his) life" — which packs flavor with dried onions, garlic and red pepper, but no heat.
How to use chili crisp, oil or sauce
Chili crisps and oils, while already popular, became even more in-demand during the pandemic, often selling out. It’s easy to see why: They are shelf-stable and a quick way for home cooks to up-level even the humblest of dishes.
Now that even more people have experienced Chinese chili crisp, oil and sauce, it’s bound to become a pantry staple. There are no hard and fast rules for how to use them, though some chefs recommend using crisps as more of a condiment, while oils and sauces can be used in the cooking process. But you can also use the oil as a finishing oil on everything from avocado toast to tacos.
- Try it as a condiment with eggs, in place of hot sauce.
- Add it to soups or stews — particularly noodle soups.
- Toss noodles or pasta with it for an instant sauce. I love to add a pad of butter for richness.
- Mix it with peanut butter, a little hot water, rice vinegar and soy sauce for a decadent peanut sauce that you can use with noodles or as a dip.
- Use it as a finishing oil for stir-fries.
- Use it as a dip for dumplings (it’s the perfect way to upgrade some store-bought frozen dumplings).
- Use it as a sandwich spread, if you like heat, or mix it with some mayonnaise for a creamier spread.
- If you’re feeling adventurous, chili crisp is also said to be a great topping for vanilla ice cream, with the sweet and heat working together as a memorable combo.
How to make your own chili crisp or oil
With so many options on the market that are lovingly crafted by the pros, making your own chili crisp or oil may not be top of mind — but it could be a good way to get creative. Sin shared his tips for creating chili crisp or oil at home:
- First, pick the type of chili you want to use. “Make sure it is ground, and if you don’t want it so spicy, de-seed it. A really good starting point for easy, ready to go chili flakes that you don't have to pulverize yourself is Korean chili flakes called gochugaru. It's kind of a mild, entry-level chili,” said Sin. Coincidentally, it’s also a main ingredient in gochujang, another popular condiment. If you’re up for it, Sin suggests experimenting with a variety of Chinese, Mexican or African chilies.
- The second thing is to “pick your accessory spices and aromatics, like scallions, ginger, cumin, fennel, garlic, Sichuan peppercorn, cinnamon or star anise — these or any other spices that would support that main chili," he said.
- Decide which oil you want to use. You can go with any neutral-flavored, high-smoke-point oil like canola, vegetable or soybean oil, or, for a more traditional Sichuan version, go with caiziyou. Uli’s OIl Mill and The Mala Market carry high-quality options.
- Decide whether you want more crunch or more oil. Sin prefers a 2-to-1 ratio of oil to spices.
- Heat the oil to 370-380 F, and then pour it over the spices and chilies. “Make sure the oil touches all the surface area of all your spices and chilies,” Sin advised.
- Let it sit overnight. “That’s the easiest way to make chili oil at home, but getting the seasoning right, the temperature right and a balance of flavors can get tricky,” he said.