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紅油 Sichuan red oil

What do noodles, a fish, pizza, rice, dumplings, veggies and steamed buns have in common? I would eat them all with at least 1 teaspoon red oil on top. It is my favourite condiment and I add it even to my pierogi.

Red and orange, fragrant, numbing, bursting with flavours, addictive. Red oil is the king of condiments in Eastern and Southern China. This time, we travel through Shaanxi, Sichuan and Hunan. Although used widely throughout China, these are the three cuisines, in which the red oil reigns.

It is impossible to resist and I have made many different red oils, but this one made my friends craving more. Because I often give away all my food (sharing is caring is the motto here!), I think the feedback about this one was the most enthusiastic.

There are tons of recipes for Chinese red oil with lots of different ingredients, but one thing remains - the process of "frying" dried chilies with hot oil. This is where the magic happens.

To understand the complexity of the condiment, one needs to understand and honor its origins. The Sichuan cuisine is known for not taking prisoners as far as bold and pungent flavours are concerned. The climate and environment call for drastic solutions to keep you body and soul warm and cozy.

In most of recipes you can find the main ingredient to be chilies, chilli powder or Chinese chilies. Not all chilies are the same or even alike, that we all know. And as we need Korean gochugaru chili flakes and no other, the same way for red oil I will advocate the chilies from the Sichuan region, namely - facing heaven peppers.

It is sometimes referred to as bullet head chilies, but I like the first one better. Although chili was brought to China in 16th century by Portuguese trades, the extraordinary conditions of humid and rough environment of Hunan and Sichuan provinces have brought the chilies to another level. Their amazing aroma is like no other and does all the work in red oil. Even though I open all windows and take my dogs out of the house when I crush them, they are not violently hot like most of the chilies. I will be surprised by all sensations that take over your mouth once you taste it.

Together with Sichuan peppercorns, facing heaven peppers (Capsicum annuum 'Facing Heaven'), - Chao Tian Jiao - will make your lips go crazy, numb, tingly, hot and cool all at the same time. The Chinese have also a word to describe the sensation - ma. Interestingly, the same word relates to anesthesia. It is one of the most complex and satisfying sensations ever. You can find this kind of chilies in your Asian store or online - I strongly believe in the Google. It requires a bit more effort, but trust me - once you make it and taste it, you will not be able to stop. It is moderately hot - 30,000-50,000 SHU on Scoville scale, which makes it less hot than Thai bird's eye for instance. But, I would like to stress again, that red oil is not about being violent hot. This monkey business is about tingling and numbing all the right places.

Another ingredient that is worth mentioning is black cardamom - 草果. Amomum subulatum or tsao-ko is the smoky flavour and a proper game changer. The regular cardamon is widely known and used, especially for sweets, but the black cardamom is the real deal. Its unusual aroma makes the red oil even more fun for your senses. Easily found in Asian stores.



For frying:

500 g vegetable oil (preferably from Asian store, but regular rapeseed oil is also fine)

5-6 slices fresh ginger root (approx. 20 g)

2 cinnamon sticks (approx. 10 g)

1-2 spring onions (approx. 30 g)

2 tbsp Sichuan peppercorns

2 tbsp coriander seeds

3-4 black cardamom fruits, dried

3 star anise

2 dried bay leaves

Chili powder:

40-60 g ground facing heaven peppers OR 60-80 g ground regular red dried chillies (when you use only regular ones, skip adding additional 15-20 g below; stick to 60-80 g)

15-20 g regular red dried chilies (for colour), moderate hot

2 tbsp ground Sichuan peppercorns

1 tbsp white sesame seeds

2-3 whole facing heaven peppers

1 tsp salt




Heat oil over medium heat. To check if the temperature is right, dip a wooden chopstick and check how fast bubbles show around it. If bubbles appear slowly, the temperature is right. Add ginger root, cinnamon, spring onions, Sichuan peppercorns, coriander seeds, black cardamom, star anise and bay leaves. Fry over medium heat for 30 minutes. If spices bubble to violently, reduce the heat. It is very important not to burn the spices, otherwise the oil will be bitter.


Meanwhile, prepare ground peppers, Sichuan peppercorns and sesame seeds in a heat resistant plate, bowl or jar.


After 30 minutes of inhaling amazing aroma from fried spices, use a strainer and discard all of them. Increase the heat a bit for 1-2 minutes. Check if the oil temperature is slightly higher by dipping a chopstick again. The bubbles should appear more vigorously this time. Quickly but carefully pour the hot oil into prepared bowl with ground spices and enjoy the show. A teaser below:

When the oil cools down completely, add 1 tsp salt and mix well. Store in a jar in a dark and dry place.

I add it on top of pizza, all noodle dishes, a bowl of warm rice and soon, in my mapo dofu, eggplant in garlic sauce or Gong bao chicken. All those dishes will taste different. Of course you can buy chili oil at your Asian store, but trust me - this one, with the right ingredients will change your life.

Of course, for more vibrant colour, add more of moderate hot chilies; their skin will add more red to final product, but I do not care that much about the colour, it's the taste that counts.

Store it in a closed air-tight container in a dark place in order to keep aroma and the longer it sits the deeper the aroma. At least that's what they say, because mine usually disappears within days! If you decide to do it, hit me on Instagram and show it to the world!

FYI, facing heaven peppers are available on Amazon here!

Make sure to eat something nice today!

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