kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)
[personal profile] kake
Description follows.

[Image: A close-up view on some bright red chilli oil in a glass jar. A sedimental layer of sesame seeds and crushed dried chillies is visible at the bottom.]

As you may have noticed, it's technically February now. However, as I mentioned on Twitter yesterday, I haven't finished doing everything I intended to do in January, so I declare today to be the 33rd of January. And so it's still ingredient month! Each week in January I'm covering a different ingredient commonly used in Chinese cuisines, giving the different names you might find it under, suggesting some dishes that include the ingredient, and explaining any other background information that might be of interest.

The final ingredient of this year's ingredient month is chilli oil, which has a number of different names in Chinese. You may see it as 辣油 (là yóu, literally "spicy oil"), 辣椒油 (là jiāo yóu/"spicy chilli oil"), or perhaps 紅油 (hóng yóu). The last of these, 紅油, is the one I've seen most often on menus; it literally means "red oil", a good description in my opinion!

Chilli oil is an essential component in Sichuan food — in fact, Fuchsia Dunlop's Sichuan Cookery lists 紅油味型 (hóng yóu wèi xíng), or "red-oil flavour", as being one of the 23 essential flavours of Sichuan[1]. However, it's also used in other Chinese cuisines as well as cuisines from other areas of East and South-East Asia. Even Cantonese cuisine, which certainly doesn't have a reputation for being particularly spicy, has uses for chilli oil; for example, [blogspot.com profile] eatlovenoodles recently posted about the chilli oil at Gold Mine, one of his favourite Cantonese barbecue restaurants (he notes in comments that it goes particularly well with their soup noodles). Chilli oil is also frequently found as a table condiment (and one which, unlike soy sauce, is actually used by those "fluent" in Chinese cuisine, not just the newbies!)

Like sesame oil, chilli oil is not used directly for cooking, but is added to stirfried dishes at the last minute, incorporated in dressings for cold dishes, or simply used as a dipping sauce on its own. Unlike sesame oil, however, chilli oil is not extracted from the plant for which it is named, but rather is an infusion based on a milder-flavoured oil such as peanut oil.

To make chilli oil, the base oil is heated with crushed dried chillies and other spices, then left to infuse. The solids may be strained out before the oil is stored, or they can be left in as shown in the photograph above, and even included in the dishes and dressings made with the oil.

The very simplest type of chilli oil is made with just oil and dried chillies, but there are many variations (see the links at the bottom of this post for a selection of recipes). Vegetarians, beware! Some chilli oil is flavoured with dried shrimp; I think this is more common in the Cantonese version than in the Sichuan version. The chilli oil shown above was made using Sunflower's Sichuan chilli oil recipe, flavoured with spring onion, ginger, Sichuan pepper (花椒/huā jiāo), star anise, ground-up dried chillies, and sesame seeds.

Here are some dishes that include chilli oil:

漢字pinyinEnglish
紅油豬耳hóng yóu zhū ěrpig's ears with chilli oil
Pig's ears are cooked until tender, then sliced thinly and served as a cold dish, dressed with a mixture of chilli oil, soy sauce, black vinegar, and a pinch of sugar. Similar dressings are also used for other cold dishes, such as 涼拌木耳/liáng bàn mù ěr (wood ear salad), 皮蛋豆腐/pí dàn dòu fu (beancurd with century egg), and 涼拌三絲/liáng bàn sān sī (three-sliver salad).
紅油抄手hóng yóu chāo shǒuwontons in chilli oil
A common dim sum dish. 紅油 refers to the chilli oil used to dress this dish — "red oil", as mentioned above — while 抄手, literally "crossed hands", is the Sichuan term for wontons.
酸辣豆花suān là dòu huāhot-and-sour "flower" beancurd
The sediment of the chilli oil should be included in this dish, for extra flavour and texture.
夫妻肺片fū qī fèi piànmarried couple's lung slices
Despite the name I give here, which is literally translated from the Chinese, this Sichuan cold dish doesn't usually contain lung, but rather a combination of sliced beef and various offal such as tripe, tongue, and heart.
麻婆豆腐má pó dòu fumapo tofu
This spicy Sichuan dish is cooked with chilli bean paste (豆瓣醬/dòu bàn jiàng), but I like to also finish it with a spoonful of chilli oil, for extra heat and flavour.
蒜泥白肉suàn ní bái ròupork with mashed garlic
The dressing for this cold dish is based on chopped raw garlic and chilli oil — pungent and spicy. If you like this, you may also enjoy 口水雞/kǒu shuǐ jī (mouthwatering chicken).

And here are some links to other people's posts:

1 Interestingly, although chillies are now firmly embedded in Sichuan cuisine, they only arrived in Sichuan a few centuries ago. According to Zhang Tingquan's translation of Chinese Imperial Cuisines and Eating Secrets, chillies were first brought to China from South America around the end of the 1600s; prior to this, people living in the area now known as Sichuan preferred other flavours, such as sweet foods (during the Three Kingdoms period, circa 220-265 CE[2]) or pungent foods flavoured with ginger, mustard, chives, or onions (during the Jin Dynasty, 265-420 CE). Chillies do however have a very long history of use in other parts of the world; according to Alan Davidson's Oxford Companion to Food, "[w]ild chillies were being gathered and eaten in Mexico c.7000 BCE, and were cultivated there before 3500 BC."

2 According to Wikipedia, the state of Shu, which at the time of the Three Kingdoms occupied land that is now in Sichuan, was conquered by Wei, another of the Three Kingdoms, in 263. Wei was in turn conquered by the Jin Dynasty in 265. The takeover of the Three Kingdoms was completed in 280, when the third state, Wei, fell to Jin.

Characters mentioned in this post:
If you have any questions or corrections, please leave a comment (here's how) and let me know (or email me at kake@earth.li). See my introductory post to the Chinese menu project for what these posts are all about.

Date: 2012-02-02 09:32 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] eatlovenoodles.blogspot.com
You're spot on that veggies should beware Cantonese/Southern Chinese chilli oils, which tend to contain dried shrimps, dried scallops and, in some cases, Jinhua ham. The most famous Cantonese chilli oil is, arguably, XO sauce:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/XO_sauce

XO sauce is prized stuff, quite expensive, and not that commonly available in Chinese supermarkets in the UK.

A cheaper alternative is Lee Kum Kee's Chiu Chow Chilli Oil. This is a favourite of mine, and is named after the city of Chiu Chow. Although located in Guangdong province, Chiu Chow has a cuisine (and culture) distinct from Cantonese cuisine.

PS: To be honest, chilli oil and Cantonese BBQ aren't really bedfellows. The chilli oil goes better with the soup noodles that I order when eating in, and I use the purchase of take-away Cantonese BBQ as a pretext to bag some chilli oil!

Date: 2012-02-05 08:56 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] eatlovenoodles.blogspot.com
I don't know of any Chiu Chow (Teochew) restaurants in London. There is, however, the odd dish that slips into Cantonese and Singaporean/Malaysian menus. For example, Chiu Chow fun guo 潮州粉粿 (English translations vary) is found on most dim sum menus .

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fun_guo

Date: 2012-02-02 11:22 pm (UTC)
tevere: Jihae, solemn with hint of smile (Default)
From: [personal profile] tevere
Yeah, certain varieties of La Gao Ma brand la jiao (which is one of the most ubiquitous varieties around here, i.e. in Australian Chinese diaspora supermarkets) contain pork! Unhappy surprise for the vegetarian. The peanut version is tasty, though, and vegetarian-friendly. My family tend to eat it mainly with dumplings and soup noodles-- I like fresher chilli sauces for other things.

Date: 2012-02-04 09:30 pm (UTC)
tevere: Jihae, solemn with hint of smile (Default)
From: [personal profile] tevere
Bah, I realized I had a total brainfart when I told you the name: it's lao gan ma. Sorry!

Date: 2012-02-03 11:00 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I admit I am very partial to LA YU chilli oil (it is clear Japanese chinese chilli oil - no seeds), there is a certain something to it... more sesame/smokey perhaps? There is a hot! version too, which I thiiink keeps the chilli flakes in.

I definitely prefer pouring it on cold dishes.

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