Crispy Chili Corn Soup is a Sweet and Spicy Bowl of Comfort
“When a cult forms around a food, it can seem like it hits the world all at once,” Erway wrote. “But this oily, marbled blend of deep-fried spices, with a not-so-subtle dose of MSG, has been around in China’s Guizhou province since Lao Gan Ma started making and selling the chili crisp in 1997.” Additionally, the condiment itself was a staple ingredient in Chinese kitchens long before you could buy it off the shelf. “Don’t call it a trend. It is the largest chili sauce in China, the most populous country.
What is chili crisp and how do I use it?
Chili crisp is a condiment consisting of oil infused with peppers and other flavorful, often crispy and crunchy ingredients. It is also sometimes called “chili crunch”, “chili oil”, and “chili sauce”, with crunches and chips tending to have a higher ratio of crispy bits to oil (but not always). Flavor and textures vary greatly between recipes you find on the internet and jars available for purchase, and although spice is often the main taste, umami tends to come second.
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Perhaps the amount and types of peppers used are integral to the heat level. Some chips are relatively mild, with only the slightest hint of spice. Others can pack a big punch in a fraction of a teaspoon, often thanks to Sichuan peppercorns, which not only provide warmth but also a tingling and numbing sensation. Other ingredients you may find include various alliums (onion, garlic, and shallots), peanuts, sesame seeds, soybeans, black beans, mushroom powder, seaweed, MSG, anchovies, crystallized ginger and sugar – in addition to the mysterious unspelled “spices” on some ingredient labels, which may include cumin, red cardamom and star anise.
When it comes to use, the sky is the limit, whether as a condiment added to finished dishes or as an ingredient used during the cooking process. Drizzle it over scrambled eggs, pizza or fried chicken. “I added the lightly spiced sauce to stir fries and meatball dips, tossed it into rice, tossed it with sautéed eggplant, squash and broccoli and rubbed it into shrimp before grilling,” wrote editor Ann Maloney. You can use it as a marinade for meat, fish or tofu or as a flavor enhancer in mayonnaise, dips and salad dressings. “I often combine softened butter and crispy chili and brush them over roast chicken, with fantastic results. I add a spoonful of chilli oil to the water to make a quick broth for soup. And I mix and match different chili chips to add a complex finishing note to my noodles,” James Park wrote in Eater. (Park is working on a cookbook dedicated to the ingredient.) It even works with desserts! (Try it over vanilla ice cream and thank me later.)
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The only thing to keep in mind is that the solids settle quickly to the bottom of the pot, so it’s a good idea to stir the crispy chili well to make sure it’s evenly combined each time you take a another spoonful. And while some brands say it’s okay to store crisp chili at room temperature, it’s best stored in the refrigerator once opened, for maximum freshness and flavor.
Our favorite chili chips
There seem to be new chili chips on the market all the time, with grocery chains, celebrity chefs, small restaurants, and chili chip lovers all launching their own products. To help narrow it down, I and a few brave colleagues sampled 10 jars available at international grocery stores, well-stocked supermarkets, and online. Some of them elicited very disparate thoughts and opinions, but these are the four that we unanimously liked.
Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chilli Crispy. Even before tasting it, what stood out was that it had “the least oil”, commented one taster. “I appreciate how many pieces there are.” For anyone who eats crispy chili, it’s instantly recognizable. “The flakes give a nice texture, but it’s not too crispy, per se,” with another person commenting, “I want it a little crispier.” It has a fairly average level of spice. “Overall it’s fruity and good and I’m glad it’s so readily available.”
Momofuku Chilli Crunch. “This one has a warmth that is layered and lingers. There are different levels of heat that hit separately, as if they were time bombs ready to explode successively. It also has more crunch, living up to its name, with one person commenting that they “like the crunch and the strong presence of sesame seeds”. It also has a noticeable sweetness; tasters were divided as to whether they liked this aspect.
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Crispy with Milu Chilli. A “suitable option if you don’t want to be crushed by the heat”, said one reviewer, another saying it has a “pleasant heat, but not super spicy”. It’s also excellent in terms of texture, with one taster remarking, “Audibly crispy, yes!” The only downside is that this pot was at the top of the spectrum in terms of oil to solids ratio. “If only the pot wasn’t 70% oil and 30% crisp, that would be a total winner.”
S&B Umami Topping Crunchy Garlic with Chilli Oil. This pot may have had the least spice of any we tasted, but everyone loved the overall flavor, calling it “super complex” and enjoying the “strong stream of sesame oil”. It was also perhaps the most “crunch-tastic” of the whole bunch, with everyone commenting on its texture.
Others we tasted included Mr. Bing Chili Crisp, ZinDrew Crunchy Garlic Chili Oil, Oomame Chinese Chile Crisp, Fly by Jing Sichuan Chili Crisp, Su Chili Crisp, and Trader Joe’s Crunchy Chili Onion. Many of them elicited mixed feelings from our panel of tasters, and you may find your favorite among this group.
However, there was one that we generally agreed was at the bottom of the list – Trader Joe’s. (Sorry to TJ fans.) Comments included, “Definitely not the best,” “I don’t want to,” and, last but not least, “No.”