7:01 AM EST
Sichuan Chili Oil (四川辣油)
I make this exotic, nameless condiment. This secret brew instantly gives a dish an authentic Sichuan flavor: spicy, salty, complex. But what exactly is in my little jar, half ruddy oil, half murky sediment? I know I got the idea from my countless excursions to Chinese restaurants and dim-sum halls where every table has a jar of fragrant oil floating on a bed of crushed red pepper flakes. But my concoction also includes insanely salty Chinese fermented black beans and on occasion, a bit of tangerine peel, whole star anise or thin slices of fresh ginger. And I rarely make an entire batch from scratch. Rather, when I start to run low I add a few more spoonfuls of Sichuan peppercorns, a little more minced black beans, a few drops of sesame oil and top my jar off with piping hot oil.
I pride myself on a semi-encyclopedic knowledge of food esoterica so I was driven to find a name for this “stuff” I’ve intuitively been putting together over the years. Sichuan chili oil (四川辣油) comes close though most recipes are far more refined than mine, straining most of the solids, the precious sediment that imparts such intense flavor. I also came across a recipe for “goop” by the late Barbara Tropp, author of The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking and the woman many credit for introducing Americans to Chinese cuisine, which bore striking resemblance to what I’ve developed over the years. So I’ll settle on calling this a recipe for “country-style” Sichuan chili oil. My apologies to traditionalists. I live in Jersey City, not Chengdu. Relax.
Use Sichuan chili oil as a condiment with Chinese-style dishes or build an entire dish around it: simply heat the oil in a pan, add the desired amount of “sediment” and stir-fry your choice of ingredients. Finish the dish with a splash of soy sauce and, if you wish, some oyster sauce and/or Shaoxing wine (绍兴酒).
This recipe is for making Sichuan chili oil from scratch. Feel free to vary the proportions and personalize the flavor as you use it. I keep my oil in a sealed jar on the counter and haven’t died of botulism yet. Keeping it in the fridge, however, is probably safer. Some of the ingredients may be difficult for you to find (though the intranets makes everything possible these days). See my notes on ingredients at the end of this post. You will need the following:
• 2 cups peanut, sunflower oil, or another “high smoke point” oil
• 2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil (香油)
• 2-inch length fresh ginger, thinly sliced
• 4 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
• 1/4 cup Sichuan peppercorns (花椒)
• 1 ½ tablespoons cloves (丁香)
• 1 large piece of cassia bark (桂皮) (5-6 inches)
• 4 whole star anise pods (八角)
• 2 black cardamom (草果)
• Peel (no pith) of one orange or 2-3 tangerines
• 10-20 dried whole red chilies
• 1 small strand of purple gromwell (紫草)
• 1/3 cup dried red chili flakes
• 1/3 cup Chinese fermented black beans, roughly chopped (豆豉)
• 2 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorns, slightly crushed (optional)
Prepare your jar. Have a sterilized glass jar and lid ready to store the finished chili oil.
Flavor the oil. Combine all ingredients except for the dried red chili flakes and Chinese fermented black beans in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Slowly raise the heat until the oil starts to bubble. Sustain a very gentle simmer for 20-25 minutes, ensuring the oil doesn’t boil too vigorously.
Strain the oil. I pour the entire contents of my still hot saucepan into a French press and let the spices steep for an additional 5 minutes or so. Use whatever you have on hand to strain the solids from the oil if you don’t have a French press.
Finishing the oil. Place the red chili flakes, black beans and additional Sichuan peppercorns in your sterilized jar. Pour the strained oil into the jar. Use a spoon to press the spices to extract as much oil as possible. I like to add a few pieces of the strained ginger and orange peel to the jar as well for extra flavor. Seal the jar and let stand for about a week before using. You can use it right away, of course but I like the chili flakes and black beans to season and truly absorb the complex flavors of the chili oil.
Notes on Ingredients
Black cardamom. Please, please, please don’t substitute for the more common green or “Indian” cardamom. It is better to omit entirely. Black cardamom has a wonderful smoky camphor aroma.
Cassia. This is Chinese cinnamon but not “true” cinnamon (Ceylon cinnamon). It has a less refined (but more authentic) flavor than the expensive stuff but I went to Chinatown to get mine. Substitute for regular cinnamon sticks if you can’t find 桂皮.
Chinese fermented black beans. These are entirely different than the black beans you’ll find in Southwestern US or Mexican cuisine. Known as douchi (豆豉) in Chinese, they are made by fermenting soybeans that have been heavily salted and sometimes mixed with small amounts of ginger. They have a wonderful pungent, salty flavor that adds tons of depth to dishes.
Oranges. Using orange or tangerine peel is optional but if you do use it, make sure you remove as much wax as possible. Warm water and a little liquid dish detergent works – just make sure to thoroughly rinse the orange before peeling.
Purple gromwell. This ingredient you definitely won’t find in your regular grocery…and probably not your Asian grocery, either. Used to make dyes and in traditional Chinese medicine, purple gromwell is also what naturally gives Sichuan chili oil its bright red color. I asked for it at an herbalist in Chinatown and got a whole bag (you only need a small piece) for $1.25.
Sichuan peppercorns. These are essential to Sichuan cuisines though you’ll be hard pressed to find them in a regular grocery store. Neither a type of black pepper or a variety of chili pepper, Sichuan peppercorns impart, what in Chinese cuisine is called, málà (麻辣) or “numbing spiciness”.