Monday, March 17, 2014

Beautiful & aromatic: fresh chili sauce from Zhejiang

Chili peppers are not usually associated with the cuisines along the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, but now and then you will find spicy delights that increase in heat the further upriver you go. Anhui and Jiangxi, for example, have some pretty fiery dishes and more than their share of diehard chiliheads, and of course by the time you get the headwaters of the Yangtze, you are in pepper central: Sichuan.

However, out in the east in the delta area there is not much to be had in the way of chili peppers. The desire in such places as Jiangsu and Zhejiang tends more towards the subtle and the gentle. Dishes are generally seasoned with considerable restraint so that the natural flavors of the ingredients have the chance to shine.

Even so, chilies are welcome here as long as they are tamed. Usually showing up in condiments such as this sauce made from fresh peppers, the heat is turned down to an understated vibration, with fermented black beans, garlic, and green onions rounding out the flavors against a light oil base that restrains their raw natures even further. A short cooking both ensures that the sauce can be stored for weeks without molding and melds the various aromas together into a truly refined sauce.
Toss the chilies into the garlic & oil
I like to keep a small jar of this on the kitchen table to spark up simple dinners or breakfasts, and if I’m in a hurry or just don’t know what to eat, this beautiful red and black sauce comes to the rescue by turning even the blandest meal into a delight: smother hot eggs or rice or cooked cauliflower or bean curd or noodles with it, and then settle in for a very pleasing time.

But this is more than just a condiment, for it is a great way to pull together a fast dinner. Quickly stir-fry something like chopped chicken or sliced fish or shredded pork, and then toss in this sauce at the last minute. It couldn't be simpler.

Next week's post will show you some easy ways to prep your fresh chilies and garlic, so stay tuned!

Fresh chili sauce
Xīnxiān làjiāojiàng 新鮮辣椒醬
Zhejiang, Jiangsu
Makes 1½ cups

6 large red jalapeno peppers (6 to 7 ounces)
1 teaspoon sea salt
4 to 6 cloves garlic
And then add the black beans
¾ cup fermented black beans
¾ cup fresh peanut or vegetable oil
3 green onions, trimmed
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon sea salt, or to taste

1. Wash the peppers and pat them dry. Stem and seed them (see Tips), and then cut them into small (less than ¼-inch) dice. Place the peppers in a small colander, toss them with the 1 teaspoon salt, and let the extra liquid in the peppers leach out over the next hour or two; discard the liquid.

2. Peel and chop the garlic into pieces about the same size as the diced peppers. Rinse the beans in a colander, shake dry, and then coarsely chop them, into something along the same size as the garlic and peppers.

3. Pour the oil into a cool wok and add the garlic. Slowly fry the garlic in the oil over medium heat until it sizzles and smells wonderful, but has not yet browned. Add the chilies and stir these together, and then add the beans. Slowly fry these together for around 15 minutes, adjusting the heat as necessary to maintain little more than a gentle bubble in the oil.

The fast track to Nirvana
4. While the sauce is simmering away, cut each green onion lengthwise in half and then crosswise into pieces that are about the same size as the chilies. Add the green onions to the sauce after the 15 minutes are up, as well as the sugar. Stir and cook the sauce until the onions have wilted. Taste and adjust the seasoning with the salt, using more or less as needed. Refrigerate it in a glass jar.


Use other, fierier peppers here if you like this sauce hotter.                                                                                                         
You can leave the seeds in the peppers if you like them that way, but I prefer the smoothness of a seedless sauce, as well as the lack of bitterness that the seeds often provide.


  1. Another excellent recipe that would turn a pile of steamed veggies into something wonderful :)

  2. Im gonna make a batch of this tomorrow. Looks wonderful. I'm thinking this sauce on top of some steamed fish would make a bangin' lunch.

    1. Oooh, absolutely! Check out the steamed fish recipe from a couple of weeks ago, too...

    2. Cooked up my batch of sauce yesterday. It's really good. I'm gonna use it today to flavor some noodles. What kind of salt do you use? I had to add more than called for. And the salted, chili liquid runoff from step #1 was actually pretty delicious. I mixed the piquant, ruddy red nectar into a batch of 冬菜蒸猪肉 I was already making for lunch and it added a very nice flavor!!!!

    3. Clever! I love it when people like you are so resourceful...

      I always use fine sea salt in my cooking, as I like the flavor, and coarse sea salt for things like roasted chicken or fish, where the crystals add more depth and crunch to the final dish.

      Saltiness is, of course, a matter of personal preference, which is why I'm always going on about "season to taste." Also, fermented black beans have varying degrees of saltiness, so that is also a factor. In any event, you should never feel constrained by how much (or little) salt is in any of my recipes... or anyone else's, for that matter!