It's always more fun to DIY. Every week, we'll spare you a trip to the grocery store and show you how to make small batches of great foods at home.
Around this time last year, my family and I were eating our way through Sichuan's capital, Chengdu. Determined to take the amazing flavors back home with us, we bought some chili oils from a street vendor. These were not your everyday chili oils, but rather magnificent, umami-rich concoctions packed with preserved black soybeans, an array of nuts and seeds, aromatics, Chinese five spice, and Sichuan pepper.
More: Know your chile from your chili. Here's everything you need to know about hot peppers.
They were a bit like the famous and fabulous Lao Gan Ma chili oils that you can buy in Chinese markets worldwide, but their flavor was different in the same way homemade ketchup is to Heinz. Needless to say, even though I zealously rationed them, they are long gone.
Luckily, before they disappeared completely, I began to work on recreating them. I'll never know all of the secret ingredients, but here is my version of one that contained black bean sauce with crispy shallots. The saltiness of the black beans is balanced by the sweetness from the crispy shallots, with a kick from crushed dried red peppers.
You can use this chili oil as a condiment on just about any Asian food: Mix it with equal parts soy sauce for a great noodle sauce, or try it with some Zhenjiang black vinegar as a dumpling sauce. Heck, I even go Western with it, oven-roasting potatoes or cauliflower in it.
Makes 2 cups
1/2 cup preserved black beans, coarsely chopped*
1/2 cup coarse-ground Sichuan or Korean red pepper flakes or dried red pepper flakes**
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon roasted Sichuan pepper or Chinese five-spice (optional)
1 1/2 cups peanut oil (China- or Taiwan-made, if possible)
1/4 cup finely diced shallots
*You should be able to find preserved black beans (douchi) at any Chinese market. Look for ones labeled Yang Jiang, named for the city in Guangdong Province that makes the most famous douchi. Yang Jiang black soybeans are salted and fermented with ginger, and this brand, at least, must be smoked because the beans have a distinct hint of smoke. Some people rinse them before use, but I just run a knife through them for a rough chop.
**The kind of red pepper flake used in chili oil makes a big difference. Sichuan chili flakes are the best, but are difficult to find outside of Sichuan. Although you can find whole, dried Chinese red peppers in the U.S., I don't recommend processing them to make flakes for this recipe; they are difficult to de-seed and grind into flakes that are fine enough for this purpose, and their jagged edges are unpleasant. Instead, I recommend using coarse-ground Korean red pepper flakes, which is easy to find and, while not as bright red as Sichuan chili flakes, have a similar color, texture, and medium-hot heat. Just made sure it's coarse, and not fine powder.
To make the chili mixture, layer the dry ingredients in a heat-proof pint canning jar with a tight-fitting lid. Put black beans in first, then red pepper flakes, salt, sugar, and spice (if using). Set aside.
Add the peanut oil to a small saucepan and heat over a medium flame until hot. I like to use China- or Taiwan-made peanut oil because it has a more peanuty taste than the American version, but you can use any peanut or canola oil.
To test if hot, place one small shallot bit in the pan. If the pan is hot enough, the shallot bit will sizzle when it hits the oil. Add the shallots and fry until they start to brown. Do not burn the shallots, but keep the oil at a fast bubbling simmer.
When shallots are just golden, immediately transfer the hot oil and shallots to a glass measuring cup. Immediately pour the oil and shallots from the measuring cup over the jarred red pepper flake mixture. The flakes should fizz and sizzle, getting a light toast from the hot oil. Allow to cool, then stir the mixture until well combined.
Leave to cool and settle, and enjoy immediately or store in a cool, dark place. The mixture will taste best after it's infused for a few days, and will last for roughly a month.
See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.
Photos by Taylor Holliday