Sichuan food and one of its prime ingredients – chilli oil – is an ongoing addiction for PAT PILCHER. Here’s how to make it.
Many years ago, we found ourselves in uptown Manhattan. It was dinner time, and we were starving. As luck would have it, we stumbled upon a Sichuan restaurant and made our way in.
Neither of us had ever heard of Sichuan food, but we were hungry and curious to boot. The venue was average, but the food was stunning.
My previous experiences with Chinese food in New Zealand were not good. It’s something I’d eat if I had no other choice. It often consisted of limp veggies, tough cuts of meat, and way too much cheap and nasty soy sauce.
With Sichuan food, a light went on. Ever since, I’ve developed an obsession. I’ve spent vast amounts of time learning to cook it, eat it, and following its storied history.
Sichuan food comes from Northern China. While there are many flavours, the best known are Ma (numbing) and La (hot).
The numbing effect comes from Sichuan peppers. These were the active ingredient in early anaesthetics. The heat comes in the form of chillies. These got introduced to China last century from the Americas.
Chilli oil plays a big part in Sichuan food. It forms the basis of a popular seasoning and/or condiment in many Sichuan dishes. In China, it’s called ‘Hong You’. This translates into ‘red oil’ because of the luxurious red colour it takes on from the chillies.
You can buy chilli oil at Asian supermarkets, but it’s dead easy to make at home. Homemade chilli oil tastes better too. It might look a little intimidating, but it isn’t super-spicy. Good chilli oil should be fragrant. It should deliver a hint of heat with the emphasis being in its smoky umami notes.
Making chilli oil is easy, but it does involve working with hot oils. These can be both a fire and burns risk, so being careful when cooking and handling them is a must.
The oil used should have a high flash point and a neutral flavour. Because of this, rice bran oil is a good choice, but peanut oil is often used in rural Sichuan, and works fine too.
To make chilli oil, you’ll need a few simple ingredients that are easy to find. You’ll also need a frying thermometer as the oil needs to get heated and cooled to the right temperature. These are available from most kitchen shops.
(makes 2x 250ml jars of oil)
500 ml of rice bran or peanut oil
100g Sichuanese large chillies, ground
1 teaspoon sesame seeds
1 teaspoon Sichuan Peppers
1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled, crushed
2x star anise (1 per jar)
Grind the chillies into small, flake-sized pieces
Heat the oil over a high flame to about 200 degrees C, add the peeled ginger.
When the oil reaches 200c, remove the ginger. Leave the oil for 10 minutes to cool to around 135 degrees C (check this with the frying thermometer).
Split the chillies/sesame seeds/Sichuan peppers/star anise into two equal quantities. Place into two 250ml jars.
When the oil cools to the 135C, pour it onto the chilli mixture in the jars. It should fizz and release a rich, toasty aroma.
If you think the oil is too hot and the chillies are likely to burn, add some cool oil to drop the temperature.
Make sure the oil is hot enough so it fizzes when it’s poured onto the chillies. This is important as it’s what gives a toasty taste.
If you discover the oil isn’t hot enough, return it to the saucepan/wok and heat until it reaches 200c.
Try not to burn the chillies (they will start to blacken) as this will kill the delicate smoky flavours of the oil.
Set the jars aside and leave to cool. When the oil has cooled, place lids on the jars and store them in a dark, cool place for 2 weeks before using.