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There is a wide world of chili crisp. These are our favorites

Aaron Hutcherson

THE WASHINGTON POST – I was shocked to receive emails and comments along the lines of “What is chili crunchy?” after my corn chowder recipe with the ingredient was published. I was introduced to it about four years ago, tried it for the first time on a trip abroad and was blown away by the crispy, umami-filled, slightly spicy seasoning. That same year, food writer Cathy Erway wrote The Cult of Spicy Chile Crisp Is Real for Taste, and my experience shows that to be true, as it has since permeated my social media feeds and food culture as a whole.

“When a cult is formed around a food, it can seem like it hits the world all at once,” Erway wrote. “But this oily, mottled mixture of fried spices, with a not-so-subtle boost of MSG, has been around in China’s Guizhou province since Lao Gan Ma started making and selling the chili chips in 1997.”

Plus, the spice itself was a staple ingredient in Chinese cuisines long before you could buy it on the shelf. “Don’t call it a trend. It is the largest chili sauce in China, the country with the largest population.”

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Q: What is chili crisp and how do I use it?

A: Chilli Crisp is a seasoning that consists of oil infused with chilies and other flavorful, often crispy, crunchy ingredients. It’s also referred to as chili crunch, chili oil, and chili sauce, with crunches and chips usually having a higher ratio of crispy bits to oil (though not always). Flavors and textures vary widely between recipes you can find on the internet and jars you can buy, and while spice is often the primary flavor, umami usually comes second.

Washington Post staff sampled 10 jars available at international grocery stores, well-stocked supermarkets and online. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Perhaps most integral to the heat level is the amount and types of peppers used. Some chips are relatively mild, with just a little hint of spice. Others can pack a punch in a fraction of a teaspoon, often thanks to Sichuan peppercorns, which bring not only warmth, but a tingling, numbing sensation. Other ingredients you can 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 “spices” not spelled out on some ingredient labels, including cumin, red cardamom, and star anise.

When it comes to use, the sky is the limit, whether it’s a spice added to finished dishes or an ingredient used in the cooking process. Drizzle it on scrambled eggs, pizza, or fried chicken. “I’ve added the slightly spicy sauce to stir-fries and dumpling sauces, stir it into rice, toss it with sautéed eggplant, pumpkin and broccoli, and rub it into shrimp before roasting,” wrote recipe editor Ann Maloney. You can use it as a marinade for meat, fish or tofu or as a flavor enhancer in mayonnaise, dips and dressings. “I often combine softened butter and crispy chili and spread it on roast chicken for fantastic results. I add a spoonful of chili oil to water to make a quick broth for soup. And I mix and match different chili chips to make a complex finishing touches to my noodles,” James Park wrote in Eater. It even works with desserts! (Try spooning it over vanilla ice cream and thank me later.) The only thing to keep in mind is that the solids quickly settle to the bottom of the pot, so it’s a good idea to stir the chili crisp well to make sure it’s evenly combined each time you go for another scoop.

And while some brands say it’s okay to store chili crisp at room temperature, it’s best to refrigerate them once opened for maximum freshness and flavor.

Q: Our favorite chili chips

A: New chili chips seem to be constantly entering the market, with supermarket chains, celebrity chefs, small restaurants and chili chip enthusiasts all launching their own products. To narrow it down, me and a few brave colleagues sampled 10 jars available at international grocery stores, well-stocked supermarkets, and online. Some of them provoked very different thoughts and opinions, but these are the four that we liked unanimously.

Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Crisp. Before even tasting it, it was noticed that it had the “least amount of oil,” noted one taster. “I enjoy how many pieces of things there are.” It is instantly recognizable to anyone who eats chili crisp. “The flakes give a nice texture, but it’s not necessarily overly crunchy,” says another person, “I want it a little crunchier.” It has a pretty average spice level. “Overall it’s fruity and good and I’m glad it’s so readily available.”

Momofuku Chili Crunch. “This one has heat that is layered and lingers. There are different heat levels that strike separately, like time bombs going off in succession.” It also has more crunch and lives up to its name, with one person noting that they “love the crunch and heavy presence of sesame seeds”. It also has a noticeable sweetness; tasters were divided on whether they liked that aspect enjoyed.

Milu Chili Crisp. A “suitable option if you don’t want to be steamed by the heat,” said one commenter, while another said it has a “pleasant warming heat, but not super spicy.” It’s also great texture-wise, with a taste that notes, “audibly crunchy, 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 jar wasn’t 70 percent oil and 30 percent crisp, it would be a total winner.”

S&B Umami Topping Crispy Garlic With Chili Oil. This jar may have had the least amount of spice of all we tasted, but everyone loved the overall flavor, calling it “super complex” and enjoying the “strong flow of sesame oil”. This was arguably the most “crunch-tastic” of the whole bunch, with everyone commenting on the texture.

The others we sampled were Mr Bing Chilli Crisp, ZinDrew Crunchy Garlic Chilli Oil, Oomame Chinese Chile Crisp, Fly by Jing Sichuan Chilli Crisp, Su Chilli Crisp, and Trader Joe’s Crunchy Chilli Onion. Many of these created mixed feelings among our panel of tasters, and you may be able to find your favorite in this group.

However, there was one that we generally agreed was at the bottom of the list – Trader Joe’s. (Sorry TJ fans.) Comments included, “Definitely not the best,” “don’t want to,” and, last but not least, “no.”