Chilli oil: a drop of life that goes literally on everything (everywhere, every time).

Often the stroke of genius lies in the ability to take an ordinary thing and turn it into something fashionable and desirable by the great mass. A stroke of genius is the definition that we would apply to those who took two simple ingredients like oil and chillies and turn them into something incredible.

If you’re one of those who heard about chilli oil and still struggle to understand the different types and recipes, this article is just what is needed. So, without wasting any more time, grab you spoon and get ready to scoop out some good stories from this jar of chilli oil!

The concept of spicing up vegetable oil has always been a fil rouge that connects different cultures in the world. Even before the fateful day when a label was stuck on the first bottle ever, similar recipes were already present almost everywhere, to the extent that someone might have thought that Chinese were investing in an unnecessary more-of-the-same. But if it was only that, we wouldn’t be here talking about it.

In China, chilli oil refers to a series of non-registered regional recipes, a basic condiment for many preparations in different cuisines. Its production started during the late Ming dynasty, when chilli was first introduced from Latin America. Originally, the iconic duo hot chillies + rapeseed oil was conceived as a simple method to preserve the fragrance and freshness of the chilli even out of season. But shortly after, people started appreciating its taste and using it as more than a method of preservation. It became quite common to see it in combination with dumplings, noodles, vegetables, and other dim sums (Chinese appetizers) as a dipping sauce. Recently, it has emerged as a popular spread or even a topping in a thicker guise which looks like jam to inexpert eyes – probably because the old bottle has been substituted with a more convenient jar.

As simple as it may sound, not all chilli oils are created equal, though. The traditional combination of fresh chilli and rapeseed oil is surrounded by dozens of different regional variates which add depth to the flavour and make the list of the ingredients longer. In the Szechuan cuisine, for instance, hot oil is poured over a mixture of chopped chillies and local Szechuan Peppercorn, then left to steep, resulting in that classic scarlet hue further enriched by numbing and tingling notes. In Guizhou, instead, the mixture is thicker and the flavour richer, to the extent that resembles more a paste than an oil. It’s what has become known worldwide as “chilli crisp”. Its characteristics will be discussed later!

Regardless the differences, today chilli oil is a must-have in every kitchen in the world. The preconditions for the explosion were already present, and it was only a matter of time until it became a trend. Suffice it to think that, from Mapo Tofu to Dan Dan Noodles, many famous Chinese dishes require some chilli oil at some point of the recipe. Therefore, the demand for chilli oil has been going hand in hand with that for Chinese food in general. Not to mention the growing desire overseas for new exotic experiences that does not exhaust itself in imported recipes and ready meals. Clear examples are new emerging trends which see the chilli oil being mixed with Western preparations like pizzas or even ice creams. At this point, almost every person seems to have contributed to this wave with his/her own version of this condiment. But the hungry for novelty is great and the race for the innovation of this product is played on all fronts and set on different elements. Chilli and oil represent today the entry level, and spicy lovers have been experimenting with different ingredients and combinations.

For instance, even though the original Chinese recipe calls for some good rapeseed oil, people from different countries have sought different sensations by pouring over other types of oils (soybean oil, olive oil, even sesame oil).

The other controversy is about adding spices. Based on the type of condiment that you want to obtain (a crystal-clear oil or a smooth and dense paste) recipes might see a variable combination of garlic, soy sauce, sugar, star anise, ginger, and shallots. As this product goes global, though, it keeps pace with the new trends and preferences: many commercial preparations reach out to more gourmet tongues, adding dried shrimps, soybean paste, or dried mushrooms in substitution to MSG to add a genuine umami kick so much in demand today. 

Then we have the texture, and here is where the main competition is held. Texture is all about how food reacts to mastication. Consistency, slippiness, if it’s liquid or creamy. Today the new fad is crispiness: that crunchy sensation under your teeth, as satisfying as the sound of footsteps on dead leaves – and what marked the difference between traditional oils and chilli crisps. Originally, this feature was added to the conventional spicy oil by switching fresh chilli peppers with dried chilli flakes. The Szechuan version, in turn, seeks the same result adding an amount of local Szechuan peppercorn. They make a cracking sound when chewed, releasing tingling and lip-numbing fruity notes that mixed with the spiciness of the dried chillies give birth to that fantastic flavour known in Szechuan as Málà (麻辣). To achieve the apotheosis of the textually satisfying, fermented soybeans and roasted peanuts have been added to the recipe, adding crunchiness and a nutty tinge. Still others simply vary slightly the ratio between oil and other ingredients to make it thicker and spoonable.

But let’s make the point of what we learned today.

Chilli oil is something that has been on everyone’s lips recently – literally. A condiment that is so simple and yet so surprisingly diverse in all its different fashions, styles, flavours, and textures.  There’s literally no limit to the ways you can enjoy it, and you’ll be surprised by how many different cuisines call for some spicy oil in their preparation, not just Chinese food.

Due to its simplicity and the large availability, this condiment has literally prompted a race to the top for the best recipe or the most original food combination. The bravest ones have even tried first-hand to create their own blend, adjusting the spiciness and the texture to their personal taste. This shows the potential of the chilli oil, which can almost match any taste, and offer you exactly that food experience you’re looking for – being it extreme hotness or just a sprinkling of life to your everyday meals.

And you? Have you found your favourite chilli oil recipe? And have you already found the best uses for it in your kitchen? Share with us your experiences and bring a contribution to the science of the chilli-infused oils!

And remember, if the mood is cold, just liven things up with a drizzle of spicy oil!


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