I was shocked when I received emails and comments along the lines of “What is chili crisp?” after my corn soup recipe with the ingredient was published. I was introduced to it about four years ago, trying it for the first time while traveling abroad and being amazed by the crispy, umami-filled, slightly spicy condiment. That same year, food writer Cathy Erway wrote “The Cult of Spicy Chile Crisp Is Real” for Taste, and my experience shows that to be true, as it has permeated my social media feeds and food culture at large ever since.
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“When a cult is formed around a food, it can seem like it hit the world all at once,” Erway wrote. “But this oily, mottled mixture of fried spices, with a not-so-subtle boost of MSG, has been around in China’s Guizhou province since Lao Gan Ma started making and selling the chile crisp in 1997.” Furthermore, the condiment itself has been a staple ingredient in Chinese kitchens long before you could buy it on the shelf. “Don’t call it a trend. It is the biggest chile sauce in China, the country with the biggest population.”
Chili crisp is a condiment consisting of oil infused with peppers and other flavorful, often crispy, crunchy ingredients. It is also sometimes called “chili crunch,” “chili oil” and “chili sauce,” with crunches and crisps tending to have a higher ratio of crispy bits to oil (though not always). The flavor and textures vary widely among recipes you’ll find on the internet and jars available for purchase, and while spice is often the primary taste, umami tends to come in a close second.
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Perhaps most integral to the heat level is the amount and types of peppers used. Some crisps are relatively mild, with only the slightest tinge of spice. Others can pack a wallop in a fraction of a teaspoon, often thanks to Sichuan peppercorns, which bring not only heat but also a tingling, numbing sensation. Other ingredients you may find include various alliums (onion, garlic and shallots), peanuts, sesame seeds, soybeans, black beans, mushroom powder, seaweed, MSG, anchovies, crystallized ginger and sugar — in addition to the mysterious “spices” not spelled out on some ingredient labels, which can include cumin, red cardamom and star anise.
When it comes to usage, the sky is the limit, be it as a condiment added to finished dishes or an ingredient used during the cooking process. Drizzle it on scrambled eggs, pizza or fried chicken. “I have added the slightly spicy sauce to stir-fries and dumpling dipping sauces, stirred it into rice, tossed it with sauteed eggplant, squash and broccoli and rubbed it into shrimp before broiling,” recipe editor Ann Maloney wrote. You can use it as a marinade for meat, fish or tofu or as a flavor boost in mayonnaise, dips and dressings. “I often combine softened butter and chile crisp and slather it all over roast chicken, to fantastic results. I add a spoonful of chile oil to water to make a quick broth for soup. And I mix and match different chile crisps to add a complex finishing note to my noodles,” James Park wrote in Eater. (Park is working on a cookbook dedicated to the ingredient.) It even works with desserts! (Try it spooned over vanilla ice cream and thank me later.)
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The one thing to keep in mind is that the solids quickly settle to the bottom of the jar, so it’s a good idea to give the chili crisp a good stir to make sure it’s evenly combined each time you go for another spoonful. And while some brands say that it is okay to store chili crisp at room temperature, it is best kept in the refrigerator once opened, for maximum freshness and flavor.
There seem to be new chili crisps on the market all the time, with grocery chains, celebrity chefs, small restaurants and chili crisp lovers all launching their own products. To help narrow it down, I and a few brave colleagues sampled 10 jars available at international grocery stores, well-stocked supermarkets and online. Some of them elicited very disparate thoughts and opinions, but these are the four that we unanimously liked.
Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Crisp. Before even tasting it, what stood out was that it had the “least amount of oil,” one taster commented. “I enjoy how many pieces of things there are.” For anyone that eats chili crisp, it’s instantly recognizable. “The flakes give nice texture, but it’s not overly crunchy, per se,” with another person commenting, “I want it a bit crispier.” It has a fairly middle-of-the-road spice level. “Overall, it’s fruity and good and I’m glad it’s so readily available.”
Momofuku Chili Crunch. “This one has heat that is layered and lingers. There are different heat levels that hit separately, like they are time bombs set to go off in succession.” It also has more crunch, living up to its name, with one person commenting they’re “loving the crunch and the heavy presence of sesame seeds.” It also has a noticeable sweetness; tasters were split on whether they enjoyed that aspect.
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Milu Chili Crisp. A “suitable option if you don’t want to be steamrolled by heat,” one commenter stated, with another saying it has a “pleasant warming heat, but not super spicy.” It also is great in terms of texture, with one taster remarking, “audibly crisp, yes!” The one downside is that this jar was at the top of the spectrum in terms of the ratio of oil to solids. “If only the jar weren’t 70 percent oil and 30 percent crisp — it’d be a total winner.”
S&B Umami Topping Crunchy Garlic With Chili Oil. This jar had perhaps the least amount of spice of all the ones we tasted, but everyone loved the overall flavor, calling it “super complex” and enjoying the “strong current of sesame oil.” This was also perhaps the most “crunch-tastic” of the entire bunch, with everyone commenting on its texture.
The others we tasted included Mr. Bing Chili Crisp, ZinDrew Crunchy Garlic Chili Oil, Oomame Chinese Chile Crisp, Fly by Jing Sichuan Chili Crisp, Su Chili Crisp and Trader Joe’s Crunchy Chili Onion. Many of these led to mixed feelings by our panel of tasters, and it’s possible that you could find your favorite among this group.
However, there was one that we generally agreed was at the bottom of the list — Trader Joe’s. (Sorry TJ fans.) Comments included: “Definitely not the best,” “do not want” and, last but not least, “nope.”