Monday, March 06, 2023

Chili Crisp/Crunch

I like spicy food, though I am not a "chile head" by any stretch of the imagination. Personally, I think the folks who enjoy high Scoville-scorers like bhut jolokia and Carolina Reapers, who are willing to endure the special kind of pain those peppers inflict on their innocent butt-holes, are totally bonkers.

I'm particular about the source of my spice, preferring the mellow palate-singeing heat of dried chiles over the lingering lip-tingling burn of fresh ones. A great way to add that dried pepper zing to dishes, IMHO, is to add a spoonful or two of a condiment known as either chili crisp or chili crunch, depending on the manufacturer. Generally, this is an Asian condiment--made with toasted chile flakes, shallots, garlic, Sichuan peppercorns, fermented soy beans, and sometimes peanuts, in soybean oil--though the Mexican salsa macha, a mix of nuts and chiles in oil, is similar.

Eating chiles can boost dopamine levels, and therefore becomes somewhat addictive. I can't tell whether my now-customary spoonful of chile crisp on my over-easy eggs is a habit or an addiction. What I can tell you is that I enjoy them even more now than I did before, though dippy eggs have been one of my top ten favorite things to eat since childhood. 

It used to be that chili crisp products could only be found in Asian stores in the form of the OG, Lao Gan Ma. Available both with and without peanuts, this sauce might be called the platonic ideal of chili crisps. It's hot, but not too hot, with crispy bits of shallot and garlic for texture and flavor. It's great on dumplings and noodle dishes, and everyone should have a jar in their fridge.  

But wait, there's more! 

Trader Joe's sells a Chili Onion Crunch that is a bit too crunchy for my liking, quite oniony, and somewhat sweet. A little goes a long way for me, so the tiny jar lasted for quite a long time before I determined that I didn't actually like it and gave myself permission to throw the rest away. 

Zindrew Crunchy Garlic Chili Oil  has the perfect amount of crunch, but it has an odd flavor to it that I think of as "fishy." The primary ingredients are oil, chiles, and garlic--no fish--though I wouldn't say the sauce is particularly hot or garlic-y. (They do sell a hotter version they call X Batch.) The only thing I like this particular brand of chili crunch on is over-easy eggs. Somehow egg yolk tempers that fishy quality for me. I feel like I've used this sauce on my weekly eggs for months and months now, and there's still always a little bit left in the jar. It's a pretty big jar, so a good deal for the money (fancy chili crisps are $$$), but I wouldn't buy it again.

Right now, I think my favorite brand of chile crisp is Oomame. The company has received some flak for cultural appropriation--it's run by a white guy--but there's no faulting the flavors of the product. Their chile crisps come in four styles, influenced by the cuisines of Mexico, China, Morocco, and India. My favorites are Mexico and Morocco, with India and China in distant 3rd and 4th places. Not those two aren't good--they are--they just don't tickle my palate in the same way as do Mexico and Morocco. I cook a lot of Mediterranean- and North African-style dishes, and Mexican food is a favorite, so perhaps my palate is just tuned in those directions. In any case, I appreciate the subtle differences in ingredients among the four flavors, including spices native to the countries represented. Also, each of the non-Chinese variants contains a dried fruit which adds subtle sweetness: fig in the Moroccan; mango in the Mexican; papaya in the Indian. The Mexican and Moroccan versions also contain orange peel. You can read more about Oomame in another blog post, which includes a recipe for ice cream made with Mexican Ooomame.

I discovered The Flavor Society via Christopher Kimball's Milk Street shop. They make two flavors, pizza and everything bagel. Considering that (good) pizza is one of my all-time favorite foods, how could I pass up on pizza-flavored chile crunch? I know you're wondering if it actually tastes like its namesake. Yes, it does--it's quite reminiscent of pepperoni or Italian sausage pizza. Fennel and herbs do their magic in this stuff, with mushroom powder adding the umami that comes from the fermented soy beans usually found in more traditional versions. The everything bagel flavor is also delish, swapping out the fennel and herbs for sesame, poppy, caraway, and sunflower seeds. I find both flavors to be eat-off-the-spoon mild, but there is also a spicy pizza version that I have not yet tried. 

Fans of restauranteur/chef/tv personality/podcast host/entrepreneur David Chang swear by his Momofuku brand of chili crunch. I am a regular listener of his podcast (even if I am about 18 months behind) and felt that as a fan of chili crisps, I should give his a try. With coconut sugar as the third ingredient on the label, Momofuku chili crunch is appreciably sweeter than any other brand I've tried. Three kinds of chiles and both garlic and shallots make it spicier and more allium-forward as well. It is good, and I prefer it to both Zindrew and Oomame's Chinese chili crisp, but Lao Gan Ma edges it out by a couple of hairs...and it's much less-expensive!

So far, these are all the chili crisp/crunch condiments I've tried. I know there are plenty more out there, but I'm not that interested in trying more variations on the Chinese chili crisp theme. Lao Gan Ma is great and very affordable, so there's not much reason for me to shell out an additional $8 - $15 for another brand. Point me in the direction of more unusual versions, however, like those from The Flavor Society and Oomame, and I'll fork over the dough. I'd also like to get my hands on a few versions of salsa macha. If any readers have suggestions, I am all, palate. Please leave a comment if you think there's something I should try.

* Any products in this post that are mentioned by name may have been provided to Minxeats by the manufacturer. However, all opinions belong to Minxeats. Amazon links earn me $! Please buy!

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