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Yes, Chile Crisp Deserves a Whole Cookbook

With his new cookbook, “Chili Crisp,” James Park proves the condiment has universal appeal

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A salad with cheese topped with chile crisp.
A shot from “Chili Crisp.”
Heami Lee
Jaya Saxena is a Correspondent at, and the series editor of Best American Food Writing. She explores wide ranging topics like labor, identity, and food culture.

In 2018, Cathy Erway wrote of the “cult status” Lao Gan Ma had achieved in the U.S. The condiment, launched in 1997, is a mass-produced version of the oils and sauces typical of a variety of southwestern Chinese provinces. It was popular with Chinese Americans, but as interest in regional Chinese cuisine grew across the country, and a generation of Asian Americans grew up and began asserting their own “third culture” cuisine, chile crisp broke bigger. Perhaps it’s no surprise. If the regular panics over Sriracha shortages or the way Hot Ones can make or break a hot sauce are any indication, Americans love spicy things. A spicy, crunchy, garlicky, rich condiment that can be drizzled or swirled into just about anything was going to be a sensation.

The cover of the cookbook “Chili Crisp”
Chili Crisp is available now where books are sold.

Food writer James Park (previously of Eater) is one of many who became interested in chile crisp in the past few years. Tracking down new chile crisps and seeing how they differed became his hobby. Soon, he began making his own and experimenting with using chile crisp in nontraditional ways. A quick look at his Instagram shows him using the condiment to fry eggs, dress a brie sandwich, and glaze biscuits, plus swirling it into savory oats. Now, he’s collected those recipes and more into Chili Crisp, his first cookbook, out today.

In Chili Crisp, Park charts how the condiment went from being a hobby to a deeply personal object, a tool to help him navigate his identity and connect with other people. Growing up in Korea and then the Southern U.S., Park wasn’t familiar with chile crisp until later in his life, but as he writes, “it has become a vessel and a platform to share my flavors, personal stories, and background ... My goal for this book is for you to explore your own stories with chili crisp.” We spoke to Park about his love for chile crisp, developing spicy desserts, and how diving into the world of chile crisp has totally changed his life.

Eater: How did you turn your personal chile crisp passion into a book?

James Park: I think it’s worth pointing out that the chile crisp guide I wrote for Eater is what started everything. This really feels like a homecoming, full-circle moment for me. That was published in March 2020, when we were all looking more into home cooking. I openly talked about my love for chile crisp, but my collection started building during the pandemic when I really needed to spice up my life. I didn’t expect this to go viral. That was the moment that I felt like, Oh, people really like this as much as I do. And I felt like there was a community behind that, and it was fun to nerd out over a condiment.

It’s such a traditional, iconic condiment, but there’s so many other new amazing chile crisps that I was excited to discover. I was getting constant DMs from random people like, “Have you tried that one?” The response legitimized what I thought of as my hobby.

In the book you talk about trying Lao Gan Ma for the first time. What made you pick up your first chile crisp?

One of my favorite things to do is get lost in grocery stores. I think one of the privileges of living in New York is the access to so many wonderful specialty or local grocery stores that will take you to different worlds and cultures instantly. And coming from Alabama, in New York I was exposed to a lot of different cultures, which made me more confident about my Asian identity. It kind of sounds silly to put so much meaning behind a spicy condiment. But it meant so much more to me because through that, I started being around more Asian people, and undoing the inner homophobia and racism I’d unconsciously built. Food was the perfect gateway for me to build connections to other Asian cultures and unlearn all of that.

I picked up the jar of Lao Gan Ma, which I knew was such a meaningful thing to a lot of my Chinese friends. I tried it and it had those savory, crunchy bits of chile flakes. It truly blew my mind. I’d never tasted anything like this before.

I loved how you talked about this in the book, being Korean but loving this Chinese condiment. There are a lot of narratives about people relating to or rediscovering an ingredient from their or their family’s country of origin, but this is more of a story about finding that connection through things that aren’t your “own.”

I felt so insecure about the idea of writing this book at first because I thought, maybe I’m not the right person to write this. But even though this is a Chinese condiment, I was still able to connect with it and with other Asian people, because it’s more about the bigger Asian diaspora rather than being exclusive to Chinese culture. I was still able to explore Korean food and Korean cuisine through the lens of chile crisp, especially after I developed my own Korean flavor for chile crisp. It’s become a tool for a lot of chefs or creators to share their stories and their flavors. Looking at Jing Gao from Fly by Jing, this is her life and her flavors. There’s so many other choices out there that taste distinct from each other, because the makers put their stories and mindsets into each jar.

It does seem like over the past five years or so we’ve seen a rise in the popularity of chile crisp, both with new brands coming out, and people sharing your interest. What do you think accounts for its popularity, especially outside traditional Chinese cuisine?

It’s about versatility. Americans really love hot sauce; I was interviewing Jing for this cookbook, and she told me that she branded her chile crisp as a Chinese hot sauce and that immediately helped people to understand where you could use it. It doesn’t have to just be for noodles or dumplings. So that framing helps. But with the book, it’s this fun problem to solve: How can I introduce the flavors and textures of chile crisp into other dishes I enjoy?

How did you go about developing the desserts? Taking something that’s spicy and garlicky and using it with sweets sounds so tricky. Were there any that you tried that wound up being absolutely horrible?

Dessert was truly the hardest, because that was difficult for other people to grasp. But I needed to believe that you can make desserts with this. A spicy peach crumble was the first dish that I tried with Lao Gan Ma, and it was so terrible it still haunts me. But I thought, Okay, let’s strip down all the flavoring and stay true to what chile crisp is — it’s pepper flakes, oil, salt, and sugar. So I developed the Very Nutty Chili Crisp that’s different nuts, oil, sugar, and a variety of chile flakes. That was the perfect result of many failed experiments.

The first recipe that I made with that was spicy brownies with a cream cheese and tahini swirl, which already has such a strong flavor. But spicy chocolate is something that has been circulated in many different cultures, and when I tried it, a whole new world of flavors was unlocked.

One of the hardest dessert recipes that I had to develop was the pound cake — it took about seven to eight different variations to make it. Having my friends try it, at first they said it tasted like a citrusy pound cake, but after a few seconds the spices come out, even though you’re still tasting sweet, citrusy flavors. I hope that this is a recipe that people connect with.

Are there any newer brands of chile crisp you’re excited about right now?

What’s super interesting is there are other cultures’ chile crisps out there. There’s a Filipino one that’s super garlicky, there’s a Moroccan one. There’s such a spectrum of what chile crisp can be, and I’m excited to see people tell their stories with it.