I first tasted chili crisp at Xi’an Famous Foods in New York, a fast casual place that serves authentic western Chinese dishes. The sauce was dolloped on their famous cumin lamb with hand-pulled noodles, and I instantly fell in love. Their version of chili crisp – a proprietary recipe with more than 30 ingredients – became a benchmark for other restaurants.
Chili crisp, a.k.a. chili crunch, is a bright, coppery red chili oil, infused with bits of garlic, chilies and spices; it is these morsels that provide the crispiness. Its tongue-tingling, umami flavour – currently the darling of the condiment set – perks up everything from Asian noodles to pizza.
The commercial version of chili crisp originated in China in the 1990s, when a noodle seller spiced up her noodles with her homemade, addictive chili sauce. It was such a hit, it is now available all over the world, Lao Gan Ma or “Old Godmother,” is the condiment found in most Asian homes. It comes in several different versions usually including oil, black beans, salt, sugar and msg. Other versions add different ingredients including one with peanuts.
For a hipper finish, food stylist Janice Poon recommends adding XO sauce (1 part XO to three parts Old Godmother) “or pan-fried, crushed star anise, Szechwan peppers, chopped dried shrimp or Chinese black beans.” Lao Gan Ma and these other ingredients are available at T&T stores across Canada and many Asian supermarket and corner stores.
Chef Jing (Jenny) Gao opted to create her own with the flavours of her home province of Chengdu. Raised in Toronto, she moved to China and became a chef before settling in Los Angeles. She ran a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for her version of chili crisp. Spicy and savoury, “Fly by Jing” was an instant success and is now available in Canada at Superfresh Night Market and Coco market.
With many restaurants putting out their own versions, you will find a range of flavour notes. Some use dried shrimp for umami appeal, while others, such as the version at Superfresh, are vegan and made without soy. Use chili crisp on Asian noodle and rice dishes, slathered on a peanut butter sandwich, on eggs, as a pizza topping, over vegetables, or add a little to a fruit salad to give a peppery sweet note. My favourite is in a grilled cheese sandwich.
Trader Joe’s produces its own inexpensive but tasty version and there’s a PC Black Label Crispy Chili Crunchy Condiment here in Canada, too.
It is easy to make an approximation of the Trader Joe’s version. Although they use olive oil, I used a milder vegetable oil. If you can’t find toasted dried onions, then place regular dried onion with a touch of oil, in a frying pan over medium heat and stir until you can smell the onion.
Heat ¾ cup neutral oil, such as canola or grapeseed, over medium heat. Add 3 tablespoons dried minced garlic, 2 tablespoons red pepper flakes (less for a milder flavour) and 1 tablespoon of dried sweet red pepper flakes. Sizzle for 30 seconds, remove from heat and add ¼ cup dried, toasted, minced onion, 2 teaspoons Kosher salt and 2 teaspoons smoked paprika. Stir together and let sit for a couple of hours before using. Taste, adding more salt or spice if needed. Place in a covered jar. The crunch does not need to be refrigerated and lasts 6 months.
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