Back in 2011, shortly after taking ownership of the 100-year-old Nom Wah Tea Parlor, Wilson Tang wanted to sell jars of branded chile oil. But his first batch did not meet the labeling requirements for bottled products according to the Department of Health, and he shelved the idea in order to focus on the restaurant’s bread and butter: in-house diners.
Nearly 10 years later, Tang came back around to the idea. “We had everything ready to launch right before we closed up operations for COVID-19,” says Tang. He released Nom Wah’s first batch of chile oil on the restaurant’s webstore, and it sold out within hours. Once operations are back up and running, Tang hopes to sell the product again, in Nom Wah restaurants and online.
Today, he finds himself in the company of other restaurants and small businesses selling a signature bright vermilion, sediment-thick chile oil. Tang says he was even inspired by fellow young, New York-based entrepreneurs, including Eric Sze of 886 and Lucas Sin of Junzi Kitchen, who each offer branded chile oil that was for sale in their restaurants’ physical locations before they closed to in-house diners due to the coronavirus. (Sze Daddy, the chile oil from 886, was available online but has sold out; Junzi’s chile oil can still be purchased online.) San Francisco’s acclaimed Chinese restaurant Mr. Jiu’s has its own Chile Crisp Sauce, part of a lineup of sauces in partnership with Williams-Sonoma. Jason Wang, owner of the New York City chain Xi’an Famous Foods, which specializes in the cuisine of the western Chinese province of Shaanxi, also recently began to sell signature chile oil packets, by popular demand.
“I saw someone drinking it once,” says Wang, of his chile oil, before he made the decision to sell the packets separately. “People were saying, ‘I’m going to send this to my friend across the country.’” All locations of Xi’an Famous Foods are currently closed due to the coronavirus, but the chile oil can still be purchased online.
None of these business owners could have predicted that their chile oils would become vestiges of an experience that’s no longer available — dining at their establishment — for the lucky customers who bought them. They were intended to leave visitors with a lingering aftertaste and remind them to come back soon. According to Sze, who estimates that 886 sold about 60 jars per week when it was open, “A lot of people finish their meal and are like, ‘I’ll take a jar.’”
Now, as the timeline for reopening remains blurry, retail items from restaurants have become a hot ticket, and shelf-stable chile oils have been anointed a pandemic pantry must-have for those longing to give their home-cooked creations a whiff of spicy-restaurant nostalgia. But what is chile oil? What does it have to do with “chile crisp”? And why is everyone seemingly crazy for spicy, chunky, oily hot sauce in the first place?
When it comes to chile oil — or “chile crisp” — the first thing that pops into many people’s minds nowadays is Lao Gan Ma, a mass-produced, Chinese brand of chile sauce that’s gained a cult following in the United States. Inexpensive and widely available, its Spicy Chili Crisp condiment in particular — which some fans simply call Lao Gan Ma — is so popular that it’s increasingly seen as a benchmark for oil-based chile condiments, and the prototype that some restaurants have looked to to set their versions against. “Lao Gan Ma has too much of a monopoly. We wanted to offer something a little different,” says Sze.
However, there is some confusion over what exactly “chile crisp” means, and if it’s an entirely different type of product from chile oil, or a variation. “I’ve actually had Chinese friends who were like, ‘What’s chile crisp? Oh, it’s chile oil?’” says Lisa Cheng-Smith, founder of Yun Hai, an exporter of small-batch sauces from Taiwan. A condiment from a small Sichuan-Taiwanese maker called Su Spicy Chili Crisp was the first product available through her ecommerce business, and its best-seller. And while it’s been made for generations, Cheng-Smith gave it a new, English name for its U.S. debut. “I didn’t start calling it ‘chile crisp’ until I started selling it. I always just called it ‘chile oil,’” says Cheng-Smith.
“Lao Gan Ma has five different products, and only one is called Spicy Chili Crisp,” says Jenny Gao, founder of Fly By Jing, a brand of Sichuan ingredients with a signature product called Sichuan Chili Crisp. She says that she was taking cues from other references of the term “chili crisp” when she decided to name her product Sichuan Chili Crisp — in particular, a recipe for chile crisp in the Mission Chinese Food cookbook, published in 2015. That recipe, by Danny Bowien and Chris Ying, is inspired by Lao Gan Ma, “our favorite brand of the stuff,” the authors write. But it’s also a two-part recipe for “Chili Crisp and Chili Oil,” whereby the latter is produced simply by straining out the solids from the infused oil.
Products called “chile crisp” as opposed to chile oil typically have a higher ratio of particles in them than oil. Those particles are the chile flakes (and often garlic, shallots and any number of other ingredients and spices) that are sizzled in the oil to infuse it, becoming crispy in the process. This textural component is what many find irresistible about Sichuan Chili Crisp, Spicy Chili Crisp, and similar high-particle oils. They’re also typically seasoned with salt, soy sauce, MSG, and occasionally fish sauce or other savory agents like fermented black beans.
“I consider chile oil like soy sauce, in that it’s a cooking ingredient,” says Gao. “I view the chunky Spicy Chili Crisp from Lao Gan Ma and my Sichuan Chili Crisp as a condiment — I rarely cook with it; I use it as a topping.”
But in reality, these roles are not so strict, and one person’s idea of a cooking ingredient may be another’s condiment. “You can cook with dried chile pepper flakes and you can also just scatter it on pizza,” says Gao.
“Chile crisp”-labeled oils can still vary a lot in taste, too; Cheng-Smith thinks that Lao Gan Ma’s Spicy Chili Crisp is saltier and more laden with MSG than others — the product is “good in a junk food-y way.”
But whether it’s called a crisp or an oil, the idea of a spicy, chile-based topping that isn’t a vinegar-based sauce has little precedent in the U.S. For generations, when Americans wanted to kick up their entrees with a little extra heat, they dabbled thin, red droplets of a pepper sauce. There are thousands of sauces like this: cayenne- or habanero-based; red, green, or yellow; with the addition of fruit for balance or adorned with grim reapers on their labels. And while fierce proponents of Crystal and Frank’s Red Hot may argue about how much these sauces differ, when it comes to the general style, they don’t.
The taste for vinegar-based chile sauce is, of course, not just limited to Americans. The Southeast Asian chile sauce sambal olek is similarly bright and tangy, with a smack of fresh garlic, although it’s chunky in composition. Sriracha, a smoother, thicker, sweeter chile sauce created by a Vietnamese American in California, is also vinegar-based, with no oil to speak of.
A chile condiment that is not only oily but earthy, toasty, and cooked rather than highly acidic and fresh-tasting is still something of a novelty, found in Asian groceries or from the beloved restaurants that sell theirs. Walk down a typical American supermarket’s hot sauce aisle and you probably won’t find anything like it.
But as Tang saw it, with Chinese food more mainstream than ever, the time was right to sell Nom Wah chile oil. And, as he and other restaurateurs profess, a great deal of customers request a chile condiment with their food. Sriracha, Cholula, and other vinegary sauces are not the right complement for everything.
“You wouldn’t take out Tabasco and douse it on Chinese food because it doesn’t go together,” says Gao. “But with oil-based sauce, it’s just a better fit for Chinese cuisine.”
For more than a century, milder cuisines from China dominated the Chinese food enjoyed in the United States. That began to change after the U.S. lifted restrictions on immigration from China in 1965. Before then, the first waves of immigrants from China, who created the canon of Chinese-American staples like chop suey and egg foo young, were Toisanese, from Guangdong Province, whose traditional cuisine employs little to no spice. Much later on, Cecilia Chiang’s San Francisco restaurant the Mandarin introduced Americans to Northern Chinese cuisine, like Peking duck, which also happens to not be very spicy. After the floodgates were lifted, chile-laden cuisines from all around Asia brought new meaning to the word “hot.”
But before these cuisines reached the states, a taste for spice spread within China. “Chile peppers didn’t even arrive in China until 200 years ago,” says Gao, whose hometown is Chengdu, Sichuan province’s capital. “They arrived in the East... then slowly moved throughout China, and it took off in Sichuan because of the climate.” Many other parts of China, such as Hunan Province, also boldly employ chile peppers, but Gao says that Sichuan food is so well-known in China and throughout the world because its cuisine is all about complex flavor combinations, like ma la — the combination of chile heat and numbing spice from Sichuan peppercorns. “There’s dozens of flavor profiles in Sichuan cuisine; their chefs have really mastered what flavor can be.”
Diana Kuan, author of Red Hot Kitchen, a cookbook focused on the many varieties of Asian hot sauces, lived in China from 2007 to 2009 and witnessed the rising popularity of Sichuan cuisine in the country, especially in Beijing, where she was based. For the last few decades, as people — such as the laborers from the countryside who helped build China’s modern cities — migrated within the country, their cuisines mingled. “I think people are beginning to like spicy food more in southern China and Hong Kong, so there will be a little dish of chile sauce to go with dim sum,” she says. “In every city you can find some sort of spicy cuisine, so nowadays it’s pretty much ubiquitous.”
Hence, chile oil is not just enjoyed in Sichuan Province, where it would typically receive a touch of Sichuan peppercorn. Lao Gan Ma is, after all, a brand from Guizhou Province, whose signature flavor combo is a spicy and sour; Xi’an Famous Foods’ chile oil has distinct spices from China’s western provinces, including cumin; Su Spicy Chili Crisp has a scattering of sesame seeds; 886’s Sze Daddy sauce nods to the Taiwanese condiment sha-cha sauce, which has a touch of sweetness; and Nom Wah’s chile oil is a simple infusion of dried chiles and oil.
“Some regions might use fermented soybeans… in the Guangdong region they make theirs often with peanuts,” says Lucas Sin, chef-owner of Junzi Kitchen. The methodology differs, too. Sin, a 2019 Eater Young Gun, says that the different terminology throughout China used for these oils can offer clues into how they are made.
“Hong you,” which translates to “red oil,” is what many people in China, such as in Sichuan province, would typically call chile oil. Another generic term for chile oil used throughout China is “la jiao you” — which translates directly to “hot pepper oil.”
“We actually make you po la zi,” says Sin. He explains the character for “po” denotes the act of pouring the oil over something. (One might translate this term to “spicy pour-over oil.”)
Junzi’s signature chile oil employs this simple pour-over method: you take your spices and aromatics, place them in a heatproof vessel, and pour sizzling-hot oil over them at once. Other chile oils, such as Fly By Jing’s and 886’s, for instance, employ a longer cooking process where the chiles and aromatics are added in sequence, and cooked until the whole concoction is toasted and infused just so.
But, just like their English counterparts, these Chinese terms are often used interchangeably. And there are ever newer terms and variations being invented for a similar crispy, chunky, oil-y chile product. The grocer Trader Joe’s, for instance, makes a particle-rich chile condiment called Chili Onion Crunch.
Every cook, restaurant, and producer lends their own creative spin to this rudimentary vehicle for spice and flavor. Sin describes his dad’s famous homemade chile oil — something that he’s “kind of famous for” in his circle of friends and family. He dices the garlic by hand and simmers it slow and low for hours along with dried chiles and sesame seeds. There’s a lot of room for creativity, says Sin. “Most likely, we just make the chile oil that tastes the best to us.”
Cathy Erway is the author of The Food of Taiwan: Recipes From the Beautiful Island and The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove.