Monday, March 16, 2015

In My Pantry: Chili Sauces

When people talk about Sichuan cuisine, the first thing that will come up--because this is the thing that it's most famous for--is ma-la, which translates into "numbing spicy." The "numbing" refers to the effect of Sichuan pepper corns (more about that another time) which is prolifically used throughout Sichuan cooking, even in non-spicy dishes. And the spicy is just heat, which can be introduced in many different forms of chilis and chili sauces.

As a born and raised Sichuan girl, I always like to explain that the Sichuan spicy is different from many other cuisines that are known for spiciness. The Sichuan spicy is not about being spicy for spiciness' sake; the goal is not to render your tongue useless. Does that happen sometimes? Sure. But that's mainly due to the fact that once you fall in love with spicy food, you may actually like it when it hurts a little.

The spiciness in Sichuan food is about how it blends with all the other flavors in a dish. It's about balance, and how all the flavors and qualities of a dish come together and enhance one another to produce the utmost savoriness. When you have good spicy Sichuan food, the heat is at once stimulating enough and tempered enough that you can, and want to, keep on eating until you basically can't fit anymore food in your body. It's what we natives often talk about as the spiciness being so good that it's addicting.

Being that spiciness is such a big part of Sichuan cooking, needless say my pantry is always stocked with an array of chili options. While dried whole chilis and chili powder are also used in Sichuan cooking, from my own experience it's the chili sauces that I usually reach for. They maintain their flavors and heat for longer in storage and are more flavorful and versatile, able to be used both for cooking and sauces.

Here are the chili sauces in my pantry, from left to right:

Chili Oil
We always have at least two bottles of this perpetually in stock because we go through it so fast. A chili oil gives you mainly just pure heat and chili aromas and flavors, without additional flavors like vinegar, sugar, etc. that are often found in chili sauces. I use this for everything, from cooking to dipping sauces to dressing to just having a dollop on the side of... anything! This particular brand "Lao Gan Ma" (translation: old aunty) is my family's favorite, we just call it "old lady sauce" because it has a picture of an old lady on it.

Chili Bean Sauce
The spicy bean sauce is more of a paste than a sauce, made with fermented soybeans, salt, and spices. It's rich in flavor, aromatic, and salty. The go-to brand is "Pi-xian" (not pictured here) but for convenience (since I actually don't cook with this often) I use the Cantonese brand "Lee Kum Kee," which is more saucy in consistency, with flavors of garlic and mild vinegar.

Chili Garlic Sauce
The chili-garlic flavor is a staple of Sichuan cuisine, but I don't think authentic cooking actually uses a pre-made chili garlic sauce. Usually, fresh minced garlic is cooked with chili oil or chili bean sauce in hot oil to produce the chili-garlic flavor. But having chili garlic sauce in a bottle, although flavors may differ, is convenient for everyday purposes. I use "Huy Fong" brand (aka. rooster brand) chili garlic sauce since it pairs nicely with almost any type of Asian food. It's vinegary with a nice robust garlic flavor.

Sriracha Sauce
The sriracha sauce needs no introduction. Nowadays it's found everywhere in both Eastern and Western foods. It's not for traditional Sichuan cooking, but I keep it in stock because of it's highly versatile. Sweet, salty, vinegary, with a nice level of heat, I put sriracha sauce on any and everything--eggs, sandwiches, fries, meat, fried rice, pizza, quesadillas, vegetables... you name it.

Do you like it spicy? What's your go-to chili sauce?

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