One of the essential ingredients in Szechuan cold dishes, chile oil is also used in dipping sauces for dumplings and other snacks, including cracked radishes. You can buy Chinese chile oil in most Chinese supermarkets, but it’s generally much spicier than the Szechuan version and often has added ingredients such as dried shrimp. For Szechuan recipes, it’s much better to make your own milder chile oil, which can be used generously for its color and mouthfeel without any overwhelming heat. It’s easy to make, keeps indefinitely, and jars of it can also make rather fine gifts.
Szechuan ground chiles are hard to find in the West, but the mild, aromatic ground chiles used in Korean kimchi have the same deep terra-cotta color and make a wonderful substitute. They are increasingly available in Asian stores. If you want to give your chile oil a bit more of a kick, simply add a dash of hotter ground chiles of your choice to the mix. I almost always buy my chiles ground, because it’s more convenient.
If you wish to grind your own, try this method, which comes from chef Yu Bo: Snip the chiles into halves or sections and discard their seeds, holding them as far away from you as possible. Stir the chiles in a dry wok over very gentle heat until they are fragrant and crisp. (If you wish, you can sift them to get rid of more seeds at this stage.) Then add a very small amount of oil to the wok and continue to stir the chiles over the heat until they are glossy and slightly darker (their color is referred to in the trade as “cockroach color”!). Turn the chiles into a mortar and pestle and pound them into fine flakes. Avoid grinding the chiles to a powder.–Fuchsia Dunlop
LC Sneaky Szechuan Chiles Note
We admit it. We had a tricky time tracking down Szechuan chiles for this recipe. No, not Szechuan peppercorns. Szechuan chiles. Your local Chinatown or Asian market will be your most reliable source, although we also made the chile oil using mostly chile de arbol (3 1/2 ounces) and a wee amount of dried cayenne peppers (1/2 ounce) with truly memorable—in a good way—results. We also had stellar, albeit inauthentic, results swapping a teaspoon of crushed red chile flakes for the Sichuanese chiles.
Special Equipment: Candy or deep-fry thermometer (optional)
- Quick Glance
- 10 M
- 25 M
- Makes about 2 cups
- 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons mild cooking oil, such as grapeseed oil
- 4 ounces Szechuan or Korean ground chiles
- 1 teaspoon sesame seeds
- Small piece ginger, unpeeled, crushed
- 1. Heat the oil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat until it reaches 400°F (204°C) on a deep-fry or candy thermometer. (If you haven’t a thermometer, the surface of the oil will begin to ripple at this temperature.) Remove the pan from the heat and set aside until the oil cools to around 275°F (135°C), which should take about 10 minutes.
- 2. Meanwhile, place the ground chiles, sesame seeds, and ginger in a heatproof bowl.
- 3. When the oil has cooled to the appropriate temperature, carefully drizzle a little of it onto the ground chile mixture. It should fizz gently but energetically and release a rich, roasty aroma. Pour the rest of the oil over the chiles and stir. If you think the oil is too hot and the chiles are likely to burn, simply add a little cool oil to release the excess heat. Do, though, make sure that the oil is hot enough: without the fizzing, it won’t generate the rich, roasty fragrance you need. If, conversely, you pour all the oil onto the chiles, then discover it’s not quite hot enough, you can return the whole lot to a saucepan and heat gently until it smells fabulous and the color is a deep ruby red; just take care not to burn the chiles. (The chiles will seethe and fizz like a witch’s cauldron as you heat them, releasing the most marvelous aromas, but take care, as they can easily burn and blacken.) Let cool completely to room temperature.
- 4. When the oil has cooled completely, decant it and the chili sediment into jars and store in a dark, cool place. Let it settle for at least a day before using.