Chili crisp is a condiments gone crazy.

That’s probably because it’s a hot sauce that can be tailored to suit a spectrum of palates, from spice wimp to fire eater, and it goes with everything, from breakfast eggs to midnight snack ice cream.

Chili crisp is rooted in southwestern China, where most of the country’s chili peppers are grown. It’s a basic mix of oil, alliums (garlic and shallots in most recipes) and chili, simmered and served together, so that the combination is slick, hot and crunchy at once.

American chefs have embraced the condiment. Cara Stadler at her Zao Ze Café in Brunswick serves a cold Bang Bang Chicken salad with Sichuan peppercorn, chili crisp, Chianking vinegar and cucumbers. Jason LaVerdiere at Flux Restaurant and Bar in Lisbon Falls has served pork and vegetable dumplings with pumpkin seed chili crisp. At Honey Paw in Portland, Biang Biang, a hand-pulled noodle dish with braised beef and Szechuan chili crisp, is a regular in the rotation. And before it suspended operations because of the pandemic, the Hichborn in Stockton Springs topped kohlrabi fritters with it. I put it on pizza and add it to peanut butter buckeye balls.

Chili crisp’s popularity in the United States can be traced to back to one brand – Lao Gan Ma, which you can buy in Walmart for about $3. This version of the sauce was created by Tao Huabi, a woman of humble means whose literacy was reportedly limited to writing her own name. She ran a simple noodle shop in Guizhou province. When poor students had no money to pay, she gave them noodles with this hot sauce, earning her the title Lao Gan Ma, which loosely translates into godmother. She commercialized the product in 1997. Her company now employs 4,100 people and took in over $700 million in revenue last year. Fans publish a cult magazine dedicated to the hot sauce’s uses, and these days Lao Gan Ma has competitors galore.

From left, Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Crisp, Chi Chi Crisp, Trader Joe’s Chili Onion Crunch, and homemade chili crisp. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Huabi’s American-made competitors mostly ding her product because it includes flavor-enhancing monosodium glutamate. Higher-end products like California-made FlyByJing’s Sichuan Chili Crisp and Las Vegas-made Chi Chi Crisp both use a combination of mushroom powder and soy to get the umami underpinning that Huabi’s product derives from MSG. They also cost $15 and $19, respectively. Both are available online. The $4 Trader Joe’s version – called Chili Onion Crunch – is an amalgamation of olive oil and dried onion, garlic, red bell peppers and chili flakes. You can taste each of the ingredients, but they don’t meld into a cohesive taste. The Trader Joe’s version is only in my fridge because I like it on pizza.

You can also easily make your own. As I am a spiciness wimp, I use earthy Aleppo (or Marash) and Urfa Biber chili flakes (all of which you can buy from Maine-based spice companies Gryffon Ridge and Skordo) for a minimalist version. I simmer 3 thinly sliced garlic cloves and 1/3 cup vegetable oil in a small skillet over medium-low heat, shaking the pan occasionally, until the garlic is barely golden and just starting to crisp. This takes about 4 minutes, and you don’t want to rush it because if you burn the garlic, there is no bringing it back. I let the garlic and oil cool for about 5 minutes before stirring in a tablespoon of Aleppo, a teaspoon of Urfa peppers and a pinch of kosher salt. Once the mixture is cool, I stir in 1 tablespoon of red wine vinegar before I apply it to my food at will.

It is one of those condiments that, if you keep it around, will help you get the bottom of all the bits and bobs in the vegetable drawer. Stir-fry the vegetables, toss with noodles or leftover rice, top with chili crisp and you’re well on your way to both wasting not and wanting nothing else for dinner.

CHRISTINE BURNS RUDALEVIGE is a food writer, recipe developer and tester, and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at [email protected]

Columnist Christine Burns Rudalevige sprinkles a mix of salt and chili flakes on her Chili Crisp Buckeyes. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Chili Crisp Buckeyes

This is a recipe for Ohio’s standard peanut butter and chocolate balls with the addition of a commercially produced chili crisp product. This recipe makes only 12 because you will want to eat them all.

Makes 12

½ cup creamy peanut butter
2½ tablespoons butter, softened
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1½ cups confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon chili crisp
½ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 tablespoon shortening
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon crushed chili flakes

Mix the peanut butter, butter, vanilla, confectioners’ sugar and chili crisp in a large bowl. The mixture will be dry and crumbly at first, but keep working it until everything is very evenly mixed.

Form the mixture into a large ball, cover, and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Take 1 tablespoon at a time of the chilled mixture and shape into a smooth ball. Place on a baking lined baking sheet. Repeat to make 12 balls. Refrigerate for at least an hour.

In a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the chocolate chips and the shortening over low heat, stirring constantly. When the mixture is smooth, remove from heat. Dip a chilled peanut butter ball into the chocolate, use a fork to lift the coated ball out of the chocolate and return to the baking sheet. Repeat with remaining balls.

Combine the salt and chili flakes and sprinkle a pinch of the mixture on top of each ball.

Refrigerate until the chocolate is set.


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