I am making a Sichuan Dinner tonight. So two days ago I started making my chili oil. Sichuan chili oil can be much more than just dried chilies cooked in oil.
This oil/sauce is a standard table condiment in any Sichuan restaurant and a common addition to many Sichuan dishes. The exact recipe varies from cook to cook, but it should always be red, hot and chunky with chili pieces on the bottom.
Note: Here is a good video of a Sichuan master chef making a restaurant sized batch. Notice that he does not mention what “spices” he is adding and certainly nothing about quantities. It does give a good step by step of the “proper” way to make the chili oil. Notice that he does not just dump all of the dried chili in all at once.
For this dish, I am using canola oil. Although canola oil is rape seed oil, in the West it has been process to the point that it is a flavorless neutral oil. “Real” rape seed oil—like they use in China—has a distinctive and strong flavor. Dishes made with flavorless oil just do not really taste “Chinese” to me anymore. Would you expect Greek or Italian dishes to taste the same, if you did not use flavorful olive oil?
Like yellow colored American butter, “proper” chili oil should be bright red, but just the chilies alone do not guarantee this hue. Most commercial chili oils use paprika or red food dye to achieve the correct color. One recipe suggested using purple gromwell (紫草), but this is a European root.
Chili oil does not keep forever. I have made this recipe with the smallest practical amounts for those who would not be using it every day. Most Sichuanese cooks have a jar that is never empty on their shelf.
Karl’s Sichuan Chili Oil
¼ cup chilies, torn into pieces
¼ cup coarsely ground chili
1 cup canola oil
2 green onions, cut into 2 inch pieces
4 coins of fresh ginger (⅛ inch thick)
5 cloves garlic, sliced
½ inch piece cinnamon
5 whole cloves, whole
1 tsp. white sesame seeds, lightly crushed
½ tsp fennel seed, whole
1 star anise, whole
1 Indian Bay Leaf (do not substitute with European or Californian bay leaf)
1 Tbs. dark soy sauce
1 tsp. chicken broth concentrate (may use vegetable bullion for Vegan)
1 tsp. black Chinese vinegar or balsamic
2 tsp. Sichuan peppercorns, ground
1. Toast the chilies in a dry skillet, until just starting to char.
2. Coarsely grind the chilies until the flakes are about ⅛ inch square or less.
Tip: You do not want them too fine or too course.
3. Mix the chili powder with the flakes and separate the chili into three equal portions. Set them aside for later.
Tip: I am using a coarsely ground Indian red chili powder that includes the seeds. It is very hot and flavorful.
4. Bring the oil to a boil in a small pot and add the onion and ginger.
Tip: Be careful it will spit. Covering the pot with a splatter screen would be a good idea.
5. Cook the oil for two minutes and then remove it from the heat.
6. Add the garlic, cinnamon, cloves, sesame seeds, fennel seed, star anise, and Indian Bay Leaf.
Tip: Several of the on-line recipes call for using bay leaf in this sauce, but they do not specify what type. While the Sichuan chef in the video did not name his spices, I recognized the leaves on top of the bowl as Indian bay leafs. These leaves come from the cassias tree and have a more of a “cinnamon-y” taste and smell. You cannot substitute Western bay leaf.
7. Let the oil go cool and let the spices steep for at least two hours.
Tip: Overnight is better.
8. Strain the solids out of the oil and bring the pot to a boil again.
Tip: Warming the oil a bit will allow it to drain off the solids and pass through the sieve more easily, but do not make it so hot that it splatters and burns you.
9. When the oil is very hot, stir in the first portion of chili.
Tip: The oil should be hot enough that the chili sizzles when you add it.
10. Add the dark soy sauce and the broth concentrate.
Tip: This will reduce the heat of the oil slightly. You may also wait a few minutes before taking the next step.
Note: The idea here is that not all of the chili is cooked to the same extent. This produces the widest possible flavor profile. You have some chili that is charred, some well fried, some slightly fried and some that is simply warmed.
11. Stir in the second portion of chili.
12. Stir in the black vinegar, Sichuan pepper, paprika and the third portion of chili.
13. Mix the oil well and transfer the contents of the pot to a jar with an airtight lid.
14. Let the oil meld at least one day before using.
15. Shake the jar once or twice to mix up the solids and oil to get a good blend.
16. The solids will settle to the bottom of the jar.
Tip: For some dishes you will want use just the oil from the top of the jar. For other recipes you will want to use a scoop of the solids from the bottom.