Sichuan Chili Oil 四川辣椒 油 (sìchuān làjiāo yóu) is a ruby-red colored, aromatic and flavorful chili oil widely used in Sichuan cuisine. This oil forms the base for a number of Sichuan specialties such as Kung Pao Chicken 宫保鸡丁 and Dandan noodles 担担面 and this key ingredient wields the power to make or break a dish.
The type of chilies used is extremely important to make a good quality chili oil. Sichuan grows a wide variety of chilies. The most common and relatively cheaper grade is generally known in China as “la jiao” 辣椒 which means “hot pepper” while outside China it is widely known as “tien tsin” chili. Other varieties grown in the region include the Facing Heaven Chili 朝 天 椒 , Seven Star Chili 七星 椒 and the Yidu Chili 益 都 辣 椒 . These home-grown chili varieties are the better choices to make Sichuan chili oil; any other types of chilies will not deliver the same result. The tien tsin chili, which is probably the hottest type of Chinese chili, is a better choice among the Chinese varieties due to its extra spiciness.
Traditionally, sun-dried chilies were used to make Sichuan chili oil. Sun-dried chilies retain their flavor considerably better than machine-dried chilies and hence contribute greatly to a better-tasting chili oil.
Sichuan peppercorns 花椒 (Huājiāo) are essential when making Sichuan chili oil. Sichuan peppercorn is not actually pepper but is a reddish-brown berry grown in China’s Sichuan Province. When consumed this spice creates the classic tingling and numbing feeling typical of many Sichuan dishes. Sichuan pepper combined with red chili produces the numbingly spicy flavor profile that Chinese call “mala” 麻辣 which means “numbing and spicy” (“ma” meaning “numbing” and “la” meaning “spicy”).
The ginger should be old/mature ginger root, not fresh/young ginger root; old ginger is more potent than fresh ginger and hence has a stronger effect in flavoring the oil. A Chinese saying sums it up – “old ginger is spicier than fresh ginger” 姜还是老的辣 (jiāng háishì lǎo de là). Take note that traditionally the old ginger root is sliced with the peel.
Chinese cassia is substantially different from cinnamon such as the ones from Sri Lanka. Cassia is hard almost like a piece of wood whereas cinnamon bark is fragile and easily flakes off.
Tsao kuo 草果 is a variety of black cardamom grown in China. Green cardamoms such as those from India, are not an appropriate substitute since Chinese tsao kuo have distinct smoky aromas whereas green cardamoms have sweet overtones.
The oil used in this recipe is rapeseed oil. Peanut oil could be used but other types of oils such as olive oil or coconut oil are not suitable since their strong flavors results in an inescapable difference in the final taste of the chili oil. Chinese rapeseed oil is vastly different from the rapeseed oil of the West which is essentially a flavor-neutral canola oil. China’s rapeseed oil has a strong smell and flavor which contributes significantly towards imparting the characteristic aroma and flavor to authentic Chinese food.
The method of preparation is also fundamentally crucial for best results. For instance as a first step, traditionally the dried red chilies are fried till crispy and slightly burnt; this sets the foundation for a distinctively flavorful and aromatic chili oil. However, in today’s fast-paced world, this critical step is often omitted, inevitably resulting in a chili oil that is sub-par in these two respects. Additionally, the temperature of the oil is critical; the oil should be sufficiently hot for maximum absorption of the flavors and aromas of the spices but not too hot that the spices burn resulting in an undesirable bitter taste.
The following recipe tries to illustrate as close as possible the authentic and traditional method of preparing Sichuan chili oil.
- 2 ½ cups of Chinese rapeseed oil
- 120-170 grams dried Sichuan tien tsin chilies
- 8-9 slices old ginger root
- 8-9 Chinese onion – roots only, cut to segments, roots slightly bruised
- 3 tbsp sesame seeds
- 2 tbsp dried Sichuan peppercorns – slightly crushed
- 2 tbsp rapeseed oil – for frying the dried chilies
- 2-4 dried bay leaves
- 2-3 star anise
- ½ stick Chinese cassia
- 1 tsao kuo
- ¼ tbsp fennel seeds
- 1 clove
Cut the dried red chilies to 1 cm slices.
Heat a wok slightly over low heat and pour about 2 tbsp of oil.
Add the dried red chilies and stir fry them, taking the wok off the heat every now and then to prevent it from getting too hot (if the heat is too high, the dried red chilies will burn). Continuously stir the chilies to ensure the chilies are evenly fried.
Fry the chilies till they are crispy and slightly burnt (but not burnt) at which point the color turns a rich dark red (not black) and the chilies have a slightly caramelized smell (this indicates the chilies are crispy).
Take out the chilies into a sieve and filter out some of the seeds.
Keep chilies aside to cool.
Once cooled, transfer the chilies into a pestle and mortar and grind the chilies to a powder. The powder should be neither too fine nor too course. Oil made from overly fine chili powder ends up cloudy and will be too dark colored.
Separate the red chili powder into three portions.
Next, pour rapeseed oil into a wok.
Heat up the oil to 160 degrees Celsius.
Add the Chinese onion and old ginger slices.
Fry the Chinese onion and ginger slices until fairly browned and fragrant.
Remove the wok from the heat and add the rest of the spices (except the ground chili).
Fry these aromatics for a while to allow the oil to absorb the flavors.
Stop flame and allow oil to cool a bit and pour the oil through a metal strainer to remove the aromatics.
Turn on the heat and bring oil to about 120 degrees Celsius after which stop the heat.
Add the chili powder from one of the three portions. The powder will begin to crackle and splutter. The fried chilies should have a slightly burnt smell but it should not be burnt (black). This slightly burnt smell contributes greatly to bringing out the aroma of the chili oil.
When the oil cools to below 100 Celsius add the second portion of chili powder. Stir the oil (helps to bring out the aroma).
As the oil cools further, add the remaining portion of chili powder.
Set it aside overnight at room temperature. The oil will taste better, turn clearer and have a richer red hue the next day.
The oil could be used as is, or filtered to remove the solid particles.
This oil is best consumed within a week.