Making La Jiao Jiang (Hot Chili Sauce)
Perfect Pickled Peppers~~
My 15-year-old daughter is a chili fiend. Just like her mom. Also just like me, in U.S. restaurants she bypasses the sriracha and goes straight for the sambal oelek. Made by the same folks (California’s Huy Fong Foods) that make Thai-style Rooster sriracha—America’s favorite Asian hot sauce—their Indonesian-style sambal is a thicker, purer chili experience. It is nothing but chili, salt and vinegar (plus preservatives and a thickener) and as such is close in taste to Sichuan’s pickled peppers, pao la jiao, and a better match for Chinese food than smooth, garlicky sriracha, in my opinion.
We go through a lot of sambal oelek, but in early fall, when our garden is bursting with an assortment of chili peppers—as are farmer’s markets for those of you who don’t grow your own—we like to make our own chili sauce. The fresh, non-cooked version we make is well suited for Sichuan recipes that call for pickled chili peppers.
Many Sichuan dishes, including, most notably, many of the dishes in the yu xiang, or fish-fragrant, family, call for pickled red chili peppers. In fact, according to Sichuan Cuisine in Both Chinese and English, pickled chilies are also called fish chilies, since they are often used to counteract the smell of fish, though yu xiang sauces are also used with pork, tofu and many other non-fishy dishes.
In my experience of shopping in Chinese supermarkets in the U.S., this is not an ingredient you can easily purchase. The couple of times I have found bags of pickled red chilies from Sichuan for sale, the packages have been way past their expiration date and slightly scary looking. This is a state of affairs often seen in Chinese-American markets, and you have to be diligent about checking expiration dates, but it is perhaps understandable with those products that are not often purchased at markets because they are easily made at home.
You can buy pickled chilies from the pickle vendor at a Chengdu wetmarket, but many people just make their own, since traditionally most homes have had a pickle crock that they keep constantly topped up with various vegetables for snacking and cooking. This type of Chinese pickle, or pao cai, is made in a salt brine, without vinegar, and relies on natural fermentation for its bite.
This is not a recipe for pao cai, but rather a shortcut that approximates the flavor and texture of a Sichuan-style pickled pepper. I’m almost always mincing the pickled chilies for inclusion in a recipe, so I just make a minced pickled chili sauce and save myself that step. I also use a bit of vinegar instead of relying on natural fermentation. This is really just a lightly pickled fresh chili sauce, and it’s very versatile as an ingredient or condiment.
The Sichuanese use erjintiao chilies, which are long and rather mild. We don’t really have a comparable chili widely available in the U.S. When I make my own, I use a mix of red chilies from my garden, including cayenne, red serrano and Thai hot chilies. Sometimes I supplement with Fresno chilies from the market, and I usually tame the heat with some red bell pepper. I want it to be hot, but not so hot that I can’t use it in larger quantities. It’s important that they be red chilies, but otherwise you can use whatever you can find and then adjust it to your desired heat level with the bells.
I like my chili sauce to taste of pure chilies, but you can easily make this into a chili garlic sauce by pureeing fresh garlic cloves in with the peppers. Either way, I usually let the sauce sit for a day, loosely covered, at room temperature to develop the flavors before I refrigerate it. It will keep for several weeks.
- 1 pound hot red chili peppers (Fresno, red jalapeño, cayenne, Thai, etc., or a mix of all of them)
- 1 red bell pepper (to tame heat, if needed)
- ¼ cup distilled white vinegar (5% acidity)
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- Cut hot chili peppers into smallish chunks, including green caps (but not stems).
- Chop in a food processor to a chunky paste. Taste to determine heat. If it is too hot, add bell pepper a chunk at a time to lower the heat level. Continue to process to your desired heat level and consistency.
- Mix in the vinegar and salt.
- Put in a glass pint jar, attach top loosely, and let sit for a day at room temperature to develop the flavor.
- Seal tightly and refrigerate up to several weeks.