I’ll be honest.
Most of my culinary education has come from The Interwebs. My news feed is pretty much food, music, movies, and random cat memes. I spend an excessive amount of time in the YouTube K-hole of recipe hacks, street food videos, and Mythical Kitchen‘s demented food porn. Many of the recipes found in the Music & Food project started with web research. I generally throw an idea into Google and see what comes back recipe-wise. I’m usually looking for an ingredient list most people could access (as in “local grocery”) and a moderate level cooking skill. This generally has me pulling ideas from my notebooks, cross-referenced with a variety of recipe sites and Reddit forums, and merged into a final recipe.
I have two regular starting points when doing research. Bon Appetit is a brilliant site providing recipes for the full range of cooking skills. Sure, you’ll get the greatest results from BA if you’ve got a bit of cooking experience behind you, but even beginners can learn a lot from their recipes. If, however, I’ve got a food nerd idea or something a bit above the usual “home cooking” idea, there’s only one place to go: Serious Eats.
I’m got going to lie here. This is my be-all and end-all culinary research site. Yes, it’s nerdy as hell. Yes, their recipes and techniques may be more than a bit over the top. On a case by case basis, however, Serious Eats is the web’s best starting point for recipe development. It’s a Master Class in web form for anyone wanting to up their kitchen game. I’ve taken ideas from SE to use in NYC restaurants and I know I’m not the only professional cook who has.
Which brings me to my recently acquired addiction to Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Crisp. A couple of years ago, Serious Eats writer Sohla lL-Waylly posted an article on the spicy, salty, crunchy, tingly Chinese condiment known as Spicy Chili Crisp. Essentially crisp shallots, garlic, ginger, and soy nuts in spicy chili oil, it rang all the bells on my “Gotta Have” condiment board. The only problem is I live in Bushwick and deep dive Asian cuisine is not easily found in the local markets. So, I filed spicy chili crisp and its popular brand, Lao Gan Ma, away for future reference.
Flash forward to 2020. I’m working on a Korean Ramyun recipe zine and need to do a “from scratch” version. That means a 14-hour stock and a trip out of my hood to get some real freaking noodles and condiments. That mission led me to Hong Kong Supermarket on Hester Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown. While wandering the aisles looking for ingredients on my shopping list, I came across a massive display of Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Crisp. Remembering the SE article, I picked up a jar because that’s what you do in NYC. Little did I know how that simple impulse buy would change my condiment game.
This is the condiment of my dreams. Spicy, savoy, and a little sweet. There are crunchy bits of soy nuts, garlic, and shallots. It’s a dense, paste-like topping preserved in a chili-infused oil. I used it as a topping for my homemade ramyun adding a brilliant oily spicy texture to the dish. I used it to top pimento cheese on a flatbread for a quick lunch. I slathered it on an egg and cheese sandwich. I tossed it into a breakfast style ramyun with American cheese. I used the entire 7.5-ounce jar in less than a week.
Granted, this jar sold for $4 at the market, and I feel that was money well spent. The problem is, the market is a 30 minute trip from my hood and there is no one in my hood selling this. I was addicted and knew this was going to be a Grill Club Kitchen staple. That meant one thing: I was going to have to make it at home.
This was not my first time at the homemade Asian condiments rodeo. During the Rick & Morty meme about Rick’s obsession with McDonald’s Szechuan Sauce, I set to work making my own version in case there was a need to dip chicken tenders. My wife Cherie, of We Can Tour That fame, is a fan of sweet chili sauce. I also dig it, but honestly find the store brands to be WAY too sweet and chemical. So I came up with a BGC version of the sauce. We now keep a jar of Sweet Chili O’ Mine Sauce in the fridge constantly.
When it came to making homemade spicy chili crisp, I did what I always do – Google It! It’s no surprise the top recipe link was from Serious Eats. Now let me be clear, as stated above, I LOVE Serious Eats, but these are generally not simple recipes. They often call for somewhat hard to find ingredients (at least not readily available at local grocers) and some complex steps. These are deep dives into an attempt at authentic recreations where I usually am fine with sincere recipes (readily available ingredients and easy techniques). I was, however, interested in seeing if I could actually make a real spicy chili crisp at home and so decided counter to my usual “modify a Serious Eats recipe” to follow the recipe (almost) precisely.
I’ll start with the caveat I did omit one ingredient: red cardamom pods. I had green cardamom in the pantry but could find red at my preferred spice dealer. Rather than risk some unexpected taste reaction, I just skipped the ingredient. A trip to my favorite NYC spice dealer, Dual Spices in the East Village, covered all of the outlier spices required for this. I can honestly say making this is the first time I’ve ever had shiitake mushroom powder, MSG, chiles japones, and Kashmiri red chilis in my kitchen. As a side note, MSG is fucking AMAZING! Yes, it’s gotten a very unjustified bad rap, but damn if it doesn’t crank every flavor to 11 in a dish.
With ingredients assembled, it was time to get to work in the kitchen. This was literally the first time I have followed a Serious Eats recipe precisely. My hope was Sohla El-Wally and the SE Test Kitchen had faithfully recreated the condiment I was now obsessed with. It needed to have the smell, texture, and taste of the jar I bought at HK Market. I would be fine with sincere, but if I was going to invest my time and ingredient money, this was one of those times I wanted “authentic” in a recipe.
The result was, in fact, NOT authentic and I’m VERY happy with that because honestly, it’s better.
Yes, we can have a lengthy discussion about “improving” traditional recipes, but in this case Serious Eats took the core brilliance of Lao Gan Ma and actually made it better. This looks and smells like Lao Gan Ma. It’s definitely spicier than the original. Then it hits you with a bigger crunch. The article calls it “Lao Gan Ma meets Frito-Lay” and that’s spot on. You’ll be thinly slicing a metric fuck ton of garlic and shallots then spending a serious amount of time tending to hot frying oil, but the end result is worth it. This is going to take 1 1/2 – 2 hours to make depending on you prep time skills, but you’re going to get about a quart of crunchy savory spicy greatness that, despite the ingredient list, is actually cheaper than buying at the store. It’s one of those items that, in my book, is worth making over buying. I’m now curious about riffing my own recipe with a Latin twist.