Monday, October 21, 2013

Chili goop so good it's addictive

I recently made a big batch of this rich, gravelly paste and packed it up into little jars so that I could give it to some good friends who are chiliheads like me. And also like me, they devoured it with pleasure.

Flaky Hunan-style chili paste is one of my absolute favorite things to have around the kitchen. It smells terrific, the nutty and spicy aromas acting as some sort of potent pheromones as far as I am concerned.

And the taste… a light heat, a gentle chewiness, a subtle saltiness, and an amazing depth of flavor makes this a great, basic chili concoction that goes with just about everything short of cheesecake, and now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure it would be good there, too.

Welcome to my addiction
Even though this is from Hunan, it is not incredibly hot. Rather, the coarse, relatively seedless dried chilies create a warm base that vibrates gently on the tongue. This contrasts perfectly with the chopped fermented black beans, which serve to tantalize the taste buds through their salt and that savory, meaty flavor the Chinese call xiān 鮮 (and what the Japanese refer to as umami).

Binding them all together is another ingredient, one I have come to positively adore: toasty tea oil. Pressed from the seeds of the camellia that produces actual tea leaves, kŭcháyóu 苦茶油 (literally, bitter tea oil) is a nutty amber liquid that is used throughout the south-central provinces of Hunan and Jiangxi for cooking and tossing with pickles. Not every Chinese grocery store carries it, but I usually locate it in a place that carries lots of Taiwanese goods.

Taiwanese tea oil
And that is another point: get the Taiwanese product, which (to my mouth, at least) tastes unadulterated. It’s not especially cheap—around $6 for about 600 ml.—but it is worth it.

Tea oil also has a very high smoke point, making this great for deep- and stir-frying. Again, that gentle nuttiness also acts as an extra layer of seasoning, so I use this to fry lightly flavored ingredients where it can shine.

Strangely enough, though, it holds its own against the dried chilies and fermented black beans here. I think this is because it is so totally different in flavor from the other two ingredients that it hits some different sensory receptors. Or maybe it’s just me.

Just a warning, but if you end up loving this as much as I do, you will find yourself eating the goop as is, or else loading enough of it on your food that it's a bit embarrassing. I will make scrambled eggs, for example, and drown them in this delicious crunch, those full flavors finding the perfect partner in the soft yellow curds on my plate. My husband tends to butter his toast at moments like this and just raise his eyebrows at my obscenely-laden eggs. To each his own, I guess.

Chop the beans
So, you can see that I am an addict for the goop in this recipe, and because of that you will find a very large ratio of solids to oil here. If you want more oil in order to turn this into a mingyou, add another ½ to 1 cup of oil to the recipe. Store it in the fridge if you don’t plow through it as fast as I do. Mine never gets old enough to turn stale.

Hunan-style chili paste
Xiàngshì làjiàng  湘式辣醬
Makes 1½ cups

1 cup fresh oil, preferably tea oil, but any flavorful vegetable oil will do
1 cup coarse Korean chili flakes with very few seeds
½ cup fermented black beans, rinsed and coarsely chopped

1. Pour the oil into a cold wok. Add the chili flakes and black beans. Turn on the heat to medium or a bit higher and cook this trio, stirring every once in a while as they start to bubble.

Nirvana in the making
2. When the chili flakes start to brown and the oil is a deep red, stir pretty much constantly to keep the flakes from burning. It is very important that you toast the chilies and black beans long enough for their characters to change: for the chilies to turn from slightly sour and soft to toasty and crunchy, and for the beans to become chewy and release their aromas into the oil, and therefore into the chilies. 

3. After about 15 minutes, when the flakes are a very dark color and taste very nutty, remove the wok from the heat. (Be careful not to let them burn.) You will know they are ready when they sound gravelly as you stir them; plus, they will smell insanely delicious. Scoop the oil and solids into a bowl or a clean jar, let them come to room temperature, and cover; refrigerate or can them for longer storage.