A Chili Paste Primer

April 29, 2015

Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun. 

Today: Sriracha is the only gateway to the wonderful world of chili pastes. Here’s a primer on the others you should be paying attention to.

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Now that you know all there is to know about the ever-versatile chile pepper, let's turn our attention its condiment cousin. The term "chili paste" can be confusing because there are many types of pastes, sauces, and condiments living under the chili paste umbrella.

To get acquainted with chili paste, let's start with the basics: Chili paste is a paste made of chile peppers. It can be just that: a thick pulp that traditionally comes from manually grinding chile peppers between two stones, such as in a mortar and pestle or metate. However, it can also be flavored, mixed, and thinned into more of a sauce while keeping the same name. Regardless of the consistency, look to chili pastes as a flavoring agent, a sauce base, a dipping sauce, and slathered on just about everything.

Given that chili pastes are used the world over, there are lots of different types and flavors available. For example, there are countless chili pastes in Mexico, which makes sense given that half the world's chile peppers are grown there. We've isolated the chili pastes that will add great diversity to your cooking: Some may be familiar, others a bit more exotic, but they're all exciting condiments to have around.

These are the chili pastes to know, whether they're hot, fishy, spiced, fermented, or sweet(ish):

While all chili pastes have some degree of spiciness, these are the ones to use when you want to add serious heat. Use them to add a kick to soup, noodles, and sauce

  • Piros Arany: This Hungarian paste is simple: just paprika and salt. While there are spicier and more mild iterations, Piros Arany, or Red Gold, is the most widely used and easiest to find.
  • La Jiao Jiang: When you think “hot chili paste,” there is a good chance this is what you are thinking of. The Chinese paste is made of solely of hot red peppers. You're most likely to find it sold by Huy Fong.
  • Salsa de Rocoto: Closer to a sauce consistency, this chili paste from Peru is made from incredibly hot rocoto peppers. It's used as a dip and on virtually any Peruvian dish, from chicken to rice.

Chili pastes that have a hint of fishiness (in a good way) primarily come from Southeast Asia. Heat up any of your favorite Southeast Asian dishes, such as Andy Ricker's Phat Si Ew, with these.

  • Nam Jim: A thin sauce from Thailand that includes both shrimp paste and fish sauce.
  • Naam Prik Pao: Nam Jim’s thicker cousin uses tamarind as well as fish and shrimp pastes.  
  • Shito: This paste hails from coastal Ghana, hence the use of dried fish. It also contains ginger and oil, which turn it into a thick dark paste.  

When pure heat is not enough, these chili pastes bring in aromatics. Try swirling any of these pastes into a fresh batch of hummus or shakshuka.

  • Harissa: This much-loved chili paste from Northern Africa has found its way into all sorts of dishes and is simple to make at home. Typical harissa includes vinegar, lemon, garlic, coriander, fennel, pepper, allspice, nutmeg, and tomato paste, along with red chile peppers.
  • Shatta: This Egyptian chili paste has a thick yet creamy consistency and, while there are many versions of shatta, most have a combination of tomatoes, cilantro, cumin, black pepper, parsley, and garlic.
  • Ajika or Adjika: A Georgian paste made with walnuts, hot peppers, and various spices including fenugreek. Its texture can range from viscous to soupy. 
  • S'rug: This Yemenite chili paste that goes by many names (s’chug, skhug, zhug, and s’rug to start) is used both in cooking and as a condiment—a must have for falafel and hummus. It is made with cilantro, green chilies, and garlic. It can then be spiced with cardamom, cumin, and coriander, but the amount and type of spices varies.
  • Ají de Maní: A peanut-based Colombian paste that's thin and spicy. Popular spice additions include cilantro, clove, and cumin.

Fermented chili pastes might just be the most enticing bunch of all, as they turn hot peppers into a deep, earthy concoction. Try making bibimbap or a dipping sauce for spring rolls.

  • Gochujang: A staple in Korean cooking. It is unique because it is made with glutinous rice powder, fermented soybeans, and red peppers. The consistency is incredibly thick and wildly appealing.
  • Sambal: There are many types of sambal. Sambal Terasi has Indonesian origins and features shrimp paste. Sambal Belacan is Malaysian and is heavy on the lime. And Sambal Olek, the most well-known variety, is nothing without garlic. 

More: Other flavor brighteners to buy right now. 

No chili paste is going to be sugary per se, but these blends have an enticing sweet quality to them. Try using them in chilimole, or ceviche.

  • Ancho Chili Paste: Like we mentioned, there are too many Mexican chili pastes to include here. Ancho chili paste is worth discussing, though, because it is quite easy to find and adds both a subtle, rich heat and a warming quality to any dish it's added to.
  • Biber Salçası: This Turkish paste is a mix of sun-dried red chile peppers and salt and can be either spicy or sweet depending on the peppers used.
  • Ají Amarillo Paste: This Peruvian staple is made by boiling and blending fresh ají amarillo chiles, which are subtly spicy orange chiles. They make for a lovely, bright chili paste that is supremely unique.
  • Sriracha: Yes, we are calling it sweet. Once you can push past the heat, this chili paste is indeed sweet. Have a bottle around, and you're halfway to dinner.

Other things to keep in mind:

  • Should you find that you were a bit too zealous with your chili paste, there is a way to mellow out the flavor: sugar. Just add a bit to your dish to temper the heat.
  • Check the expiration labels of your chili pastes to see how long they'll last. They should all be kept in the fridge, though.
  • You can indeed make your own chili paste: Simply soak dried chiles in water until soft, then grind—or blend—them into a paste. If you're making chili paste from scratch, it is best to use the paste right away, though it will be fine in the fridge for up to a week.

What is your favorite chili paste and your number one go-to way to use it? Share with us in the comments below!

First two photos by Bobbi Lin; Phat Si Ew by Austin Bush; Moroccan Merguez Ragout with Poached Eggs by Sarah Shatz; Cambodian-Style Spring Rolls by Nicole Franzen; Short Rib Chili by James Ransom.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • baegohpah
  • Hans Bolte
    Hans Bolte
  • George Gale
    George Gale
  • JCCraves
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    Danube Kitchen
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baegohpah April 30, 2020
Hello @food52 team - the gochujang and harissa labels are inverted. They're pointing to the wrong items in the photo.
Hans B. June 12, 2018
Maybe more of an oil but Chiu Chow.
George G. May 22, 2017
One of th best, but only now becoming, is the Sichuanese Pixian douban jiang: made from chili and fermentd broad beans. It has a deep, rih, unique flavour that Sichuan food is lacking when it's not there.
JCCraves May 22, 2017
"Should you find that you were a bit too zealous with your chili paste, there is a way to mellow out the flavor: sugar. Just add a bit to your dish to temper the heat."

Add a bit of what? Yogurt, sour cream? Sugar?
Gila G. May 22, 2017
??? It clearly says sugar.
Danube K. April 19, 2017
As far as Hungarian spice pastes go, Piros Arany is good, but Erös Pista is even better. Perfect as a condiment (especially for eggs) or adding heat to a stewed dish (like goulash).
Danube K. September 17, 2017
It's also worth nothing that Piros Arany is a brand name for an Univer product. For the condiment itself, you could probably call it paprika cream.
AKOS April 2, 2017
Tayzz hot sauce! (Indian, mild, sweet)
Rj April 2, 2017
As someone from the sambal side of south east Asia, I was excited to find a chilli paste in indian cuisine too: Thecha
kr April 19, 2016
Missing the Bomba di Calabria hot pepper paste. I use it in all sorts of things, but mostly to make arrabbiata sauce. It's a pantry staple!
JCCraves May 22, 2017
I LOVE Bomba di Calabria!
beejay45 October 16, 2015
Does ayvar count? Depending on the pepper, it can be quite zippy.
karmaya August 18, 2015
sambal bajak - an Indonesian sambal - ingredients are roasted, toasted, so darker and rich - just found a recipe for it here:
Entube May 22, 2015
Hey @Food52 you missed Entube's Harissa in your chili paste's to know! We are a new company in Los Angeles making North America's only Harissa in a tube, all natural, vegan, paleo and super healthy. You guys should try it!!
nobody May 7, 2015
nobody May 7, 2015
heh, sorry no idea why there are those +-s
nobody May 7, 2015
my comment again: piros arany, not aarany. piros means red, arany means gold so literally 'piros arany' means 'red gold'. (isn't is possible to delete my crazy comment? so bad.)
Gila G. April 30, 2015
Schug comes in both green and red varieties. In fact, red schug is mich more ubiquitous than green schug-- ironic since the red version was left out of this article entirely!
Chris B. April 30, 2015
You also missed out South African's Bushman's Chilli sauces - perfect, but can blow your mind away (different grades)
Daniel S. April 29, 2015
You missed "Piri-piri" I use iI in almost everthing
Daniel S. April 29, 2015
foofaraw April 29, 2015
Some notes on Sambal: Both sambal terasi (wrong spelling on the article) and sambal belacan use shrimp paste. Terasi in Bahasa = Belacan in Malay = fermented shrimp paste.
In Indonesia, each regions has their own sambal recipes because Indonesians really loves sambal and hot food, and eat food with sambal a lot of the time (like ketchup for Americans). Some of the well known ones are Sambal Tomat (with lots of tomatoes), Sambal Goreng (fried sambal which is stir-fried with oil until it is fragrant), Sambal Tauco (with fermented soybeans), Sambal Cabe Ijo (looks green because it uses very hot green Thai chili), Sambal Mangga (uses ripe/unripened mango), Sambal Kecap (with sweet soy sauce), and Sambal Bajak (a bit sweeter and can be found in traditional restaurant). I didn't post the recipe here, but you can search the recipes by Googling the names and Google Translate it if you are interested.
Hannah P. April 29, 2015
We have changed the article to reflect your correction. And, since there are so many types of Sambal, as you pointed out, it was impossible to include them all! Thanks so much for adding this detail! It is much appreciated.
foofaraw May 18, 2015
You are welcome! Thank you for making the changes too. There is a lot of Sambal, though since Indonesian-based article is less often comes out in internet and they mostly in Bahasa, it is a bit difficult to find Indonesia-related information.