Making Hong You (Chili Oil)
Facing Heaven in a Bowl of Chili Oil~~
Chili oil is a must-have ingredient for Sichuan cooking, and particularly for sauces that go on “cold dishes,” such as noodles and chicken, that are some of the cuisine’s most loved snacks and starters. It doesn’t make sense to buy your everyday chili oil (and for my family it is every day) when you can so easily make it yourself and control the type of oil, the quality and heat of chili flakes and the freshness. Just do a taste test compared to the store-bought version and you’ll know the effort’s worth it.
The most important component of hong you (literally, red oil) is, of course, chili flakes. I urge you to look for chili flakes from Sichuan. I realize this is easier said than done, but you do see Sichuan chilies and flakes in Chinese supermarkets in the U.S. on a more regular basis nowadays. We also carry Sichuan chili flakes in our SHOP.
In these photos, taken before we opened the shop, I am using flakes I got in Chengdu on my last visit. I bought a kilo of super-red, medium-coarse flakes from the Chengdu spice market, which, kept in the freezer, lasted me a long while. I don’t know for sure what kind they were. I simply asked the spice merchant for “the best.” Sichuan cooks use different types of chilies and flakes depending on whether they want to accentuate the heat, the color or the aroma.
I have also used whole red chilies from Sichuan and elsewhere in China. These I toasted until medium brown in a wok then processed to flakes in a small food processor. They make toasty and delicious oil, but it is quite a bit hotter than it is if you use pre-ground flakes, which have fewer seeds. And Sichuan chili oil is not meant to be super hot, because it is meant to be used in abundance.
Instead of Sichuanese flakes, a very good and easy alternative is Korean hot pepper powder or flakes, which is abundantly available in the U.S. seeing as how it is a necessity in many types of kimchee. It has a similar bright-red color and moderate heat level as the chili flakes/powder you get in Sichuan. Make sure to use the coarse-ground flakes and not the fine powder.
As for oil, in Sichuan they would probably use unrefined canola (rapeseed) oil, which has a stronger taste than Western refined canola. You can use canola or, for a stronger taste, peanut oil, preferably one made in China or Taiwan.
And as for the proportion of chilies to oil, this is pretty much up to you. I’ve seen recipes that call for five parts oil to one part chili flakes and those that use a direct 1:1 ratio. I like a lot of flakes in my oil, so I generally use two or three parts oil to one part flakes.
The hallmark of a Sichuan chili oil is not searing heat (like Thai chili oil) but a complex toasted chili taste, so it’s important to get the oil to just the right temperature to toast but not burn the flakes.
Updated December 2016
- Makes two cups:
- ½ cup coarse chili flakes (Sichuan or Korean)
- 1 inch ginger, peeled and smashed (optional)
- 1½ cups peanut or canola oil (or a mix of the two)
- ¼ cup toasted sesame oil
- Put chili flakes in a sealable, heat-proof, glass jar.
- Pour oil into a small saucepan, add ginger and heat to 275°F, or 135°C. Remove the ginger.
- Test a small amount of oil on the flakes to make sure they sizzle but not burn. Pour the remaining oil over the flakes and watch them sizzle. The oil should be hot enough to toast the flakes but not so hot that it burns them.
- Stir the mixture up well, then allow chili oil to cool to room temperature. When cool, add the sesame oil. Mix well. Store in refrigerator for maximum shelf life.