I know I'm not the only condiment queen, with a fridge and countertop littered with tasty food toppers.
The proof is in the numbers. Sales of global sauces, dressings and condiments add up to more than $142 billion a year, according to market research firms. And while ketchup still reigns supreme worldwide (despite mayo taking top U.S. honors last year), hot sauces are heating up, with sales expected to reach $5 billion in the next few years.
Since the pandemic, the domestic cooking game has been seriously raised. Home cooks wanting to create restaurant-style dishes in their kitchens drove a demand for spicier, bolder flavors — conveniently found in jars and bottles from both local sources and at global markets.
So when one of the latest culinary Instagram darlings came along, my curiosity was piqued.
Visually intriguing towers of soft-serve ice cream in waffle cones, with volcanic torrents of crispy garlic-hot chile sauce cascading over them — sweet, savory, creamy, crunchy, salty, spicy; an amazing amalgam of sensory pleasure. Just a few posts forced me to finally pay attention to the regional Chinese pantry staple called chili crisp.
The origins of "chili crisp" are sourced to Guizhou province, where the majority of China's hot chile peppers are grown. The creator of the Lao Gan Ma (translated as "godmother sauce") brand of this addictive chile oil was an enterprising woman who ran a noodle shop in the late 1990s to support her family. Her version of a traditional chile oil was filled with not-so-overpoweringly spicy dried and coarsely crushed Sichuan chiles, crisped-up chunks of fried garlic or shallot, and fragrant spices (like Sichuan peppercorns, star anise, cinnamon and bay leaf) — quickly toasted in a bath of hot canola oil. Each spoonful was thick with chiles and aromatics that stayed crisp, rather than becoming chewy. Chili crisp became the perfect stir-in for tender noodles, a satisfying contrast of texture and big flavor.
There are many versions of chili crisp, all featuring a savory underpinning of umami, like fermented black beans or soybeans, dried mushroom powder, peanuts, sunflower or sesame seeds, or sometimes more than a dash of MSG. The grassroots love for chili crisps was driven first by Chinese expats, but it is now beloved by a new generation of eaters and cooks who can't get enough heat and spice in their food.
The web is chock-full of DIY chili crisp videos and recipes; you can easily create your own jars of crimson crisp with a quick trip to a good Asian market. But if you're already there to get a bagful of hot chiles, you may as well pick up a few imported iterations of crisp to compare tastes from all over China and even some from Japan.
When the first wave of the chili crisp craze hit, it passed me by. I do appreciate a good buzz from hot chiles, but I am not a fan of incendiary heat. At first blush I assumed the crispy condiment was firmly in the province of Chile Heads. But what I first dismissed as a food fad has stood its ground in popular food culture, forcing me to at least give it a go. I wanted my first experience to be the gold standard, Lao Gan Ma. I found that its place is well established in the category, if by nothing more than discovering the Costco-sized jars dwarfing other brands on the shelf in a large Asian market.
My first taste truly was a revelation. A tentative bite — which was not terrifically spicy — led to a big slurpy spoonful. I'd made a ramen-size bowl of soba noodles and cooked lentils, topped with a cupful of roasted eggplant and cauliflower to be my base. I drizzled in another generous spoonful and tossed it up with chopsticks. The crunch, the slightly lip-numbing effect of Sichuan peppercorns and the savory spice added up to so much more than a sum of the parts. I have to admit to adding a good shake of another hot sauce I love, Tiger Sauce from New Orleans. Its slightly sweet edge melded beautifully with the savoriness of the chili crisp, a mash-up that tasted like really good restaurant takeout.
During a recent conversation with Jessie Kordosky, a chef colleague and friend, we discovered our mutual curiosity about exploring chili crisp iterations and began brainstorming some fun summer entertaining ideas featuring crisps. Jessie tasked herself with conducting a serious review of four versions. She tasted them on bowls of steamed jasmine rice, finding a wide variance in the levels of umami, saltiness, slight smokiness, kicks of heat and even subtle sweetness. Her assessment? Try several varieties until you find ones to your liking — and play with how you use them. Conventional chili crisp wisdom is that it's great on everything, especially to boost the flavor quotient of noodles, pasta, or rice — or to add zip to eggs. But she also highly recommends stirring a spoonful into some good butter to dollop on grilled meats or seafood, dribble some onto a cream cheese-schmeared bagel or avocado toast, spoon into a soft polenta or a creamy mac and cheese, top a hot slice of cheesy pizza, or jazz up grilled summer veggies.
I've found that chili crisp really shines when teamed up with creamy or soft textures, so the following hot-weather recipes push that narrative. All are terrific for gatherings — outside on the porch or patio.
Where to buy chili crisp
It's not hard to find chili crisps; we've picked them up locally and ordered them online — just be sure to look for the word "crisp" on the label, as there are lots of chile oils on shelves that have intense heat but much less texture.
Lao Gan Ma: The godmother of chili crisp can be found in Asian markets, including United Noodle (2015 E. 24th St., Mpls., or 7730 Hudson Road, Woodbury), Shuang Hur (654 W. University Av., St. Paul, or 2712 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls.), and Dragon Star (633 W. Minnehaha Av., St. Paul).
Hai Hai Coconut Chili Crisp: Pick up a jar or two at the restaurant (2121 University Av. NE., Mpls., haihaimpls.com). It's by far our favorite version, with a distinct "coconutty" edge and just the right amount of heat and crunch. We loved it with the frozen semifreddo.
S & B Umami Crunchy Garlic with Chili Sauce: We found it at United Noodle, plus ordered some online. The high ratio of crisped garlic chunks makes it stellar for the creamy labneh recipe.
Fly by Jing Sichuan Chili Crisp: We ordered this from Amazon, but you can buy direct at flybyjing.com, the founder of a spice and condiment company in Chengdu, China. The name comes from the "fly restaurants" — hole-in-the-wall eateries that attract people like flies.
Taiwan Black Bean Crisp Chili Oil: The salty funk of fermented black beans takes this crisp to another savory place. Look for it at your favorite Asian market.
Japanese Grilled Chili Crisp Corn Ribs
Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer.
Note: Corn "ribs" are a fun way to make midsummer finger food, dripping with a creamy chili crisp mayo. The sweetness of the corn is a luscious balance for the savory spread. From Lisa Golden Schroeder.
• 3 large ears fresh corn on the cob
• 1/4 c. mayonnaise (use Kewpie brand from Japan, if you can find it)
• 2 tbsp. chili crisp
• 1 tbsp. seasoned rice vinegar
• 2 tsp. grated lime peel
Heat grill to medium-high heat. Cut each ear of corn lengthwise into quarters (see below).
Mix mayonnaise, chili crisp, vinegar and lime peel until smooth.
Grill corn directly on grill grates until lightly charred and tender, turning occasionally. Brush with mayonnaise mixture; serve hot.
To safely slice corn cobs: Wrap each ear in a damp paper towel. Heat in the microwave for 30 seconds. Remove paper toweling; stand each ear on its stem end (slice to create a flat bottom) and carefully cut lengthwise with a heavy-bladed knife.
Chili Crisp-Roasted Tomatoes With Labneh
Note: Labneh is plain yogurt that is strained to create a spreadable cheese. It's similar to cream cheese, but with yogurt's characteristic tang. This recipe can easily be doubled to serve a crowd or to use as a delicious spread for bagels, a dip for crackers or pretzels, or as a fun addition to a cheese board. Scoop it into small balls and marinate in extra-virgin olive oil mixed with herbs and spices to serve as your own impressive, marinated cheese. From Jessie Kordosky.
• 1 (16-oz.) container full-fat Greek yogurt
• Pinch of salt, if desired
• 12 oz. stem-on grape tomatoes
• 2 tbsp. chili crisp (I prefer one with a more pronounced garlic flavor), divided
• 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
• 2 tbsp. chopped fresh herbs, such as oregano, mint, dill, cilantro or flat-leaf parsley
• Sprinkle of ground sumac, optional
• Toasted pita bread wedges, crisp baguette slices, and/or fresh vegetable dippers
To prepare the labneh: Mix the yogurt with salt, if using. Place a colander in a large, deep bowl; line with cheesecloth. Spoon yogurt onto cheesecloth. Pull the edges up and wrap the yogurt tightly and tie with kitchen twine. Place the wrapped yogurt in fridge to drain for 8 to 24 hours. The longer you drain the yogurt, the thicker the labneh will be. Unwrap labneh and place in an airtight container until ready to use. This can be done up to 5 days ahead.
To prepare the tomatoes: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Rinse and pat tomatoes dry, trying to keep the stems intact. Place on a parchment-lined baking pan; drizzle with 1 tablespoon of chili crisp, taking time to coat the tomatoes with the oil. Roast for 15 to 20 minutes, or until some of them burst and are starting to brown in spots. Remove from oven; cool for at least 5 minutes. Feel free to carefully smash some of the roasted tomatoes to release some of the juices.
To serve: Mix labneh with garlic and spread on a serving plate or platter. Top with roasted tomatoes, keeping the stems on for presentation. Spoon any tomato pan juices over labneh. Drizzle remaining 1 tablespoon chili crisp over tomatoes and labneh; sprinkle with herbs and sumac, if using. Serve with pita bread, crostini and/or sliced veggies.
Coconut Caramel Semifreddo With Grilled Chili Crisp Pineapple
Note: A semifreddo is a frozen dessert from Italy, similar to ice cream but made like a mousse. It's a great do-ahead summer finish that's frozen in a loaf pan, making it easy to serve. It's topped with grilled pineapple and as much chili crisp as you'd like to spice it all up. I used a wonderful variation of crisp from Hai Hai chef Christina Nguyen. Her version complements the smoky grilled pineapple and coconut-caramel flavor of the semifreddo. Order her coconut chili crisp ($9) online for curbside pickup or as part of your takeout order. From Lisa Golden Schroeder.
For the semifreddo:
• 1 (13.5-oz.) can unsweetened coconut milk
• 1 (14-oz.) can sweetened condensed milk
• 1/4 tsp. coarse salt
• 1 1/2 c. heavy whipping cream, chilled
• 2 tbsp. caramel coffee syrup
• 1 c. unsweetened coconut flakes, toasted until golden brown
For the pineapple:
• 1 medium-sized ripe pineapple, cut into 1/4 to 1/2-in. slices
• 3 tbsp. butter, softened
• Chili crisp, to taste (see Note)
To prepare the semifreddo: Line an 8- by 4-inch loaf pan with parchment strips, leaving a good overhang on all sides. Fill a large bowl with ice water.
Mix coconut milk and sweetened condensed milk in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat and rapidly simmer, stirring frequently, for 10 minutes or until thickened. Remove from heat and carefully place pan in ice water bath to cool, stirring frequently. Stir in salt.
Beat cold cream and caramel syrup together in a large mixer bowl until stiff peaks form. Gently fold some of the cooled coconut mixture into the cream; gently fold in the remaining coconut mixture with a spatula until just streaks of cream are visible.
Spoon mousse into prepared loaf pan, smoothing the top. Sprinkle with half of the toasted coconut (reserve the remainder to garnish each dessert). Place pan in freezer. This can be done up to 5 days ahead.
To prepare pineapple: Before serving dessert, grill pineapple slices until golden brown. (Alternatively, pan-roast chunks of pineapple in butter in a skillet.) Brush with butter. Slice off skin and cut into small wedges or chop into chunks.
To serve: Thickly slice semifreddo. Top each serving with some pineapple and toasted coconut, drizzled generously with chili crisp.
Lisa Golden Schroeder is a Minnesota freelance writer and food stylist.