Everything You Need to Know About Chili Pastes

By Hannah Petertil

Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we’re sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.

Today: Sriracha is the only gateway to the wonderful world of chili pastes. Here’s a primer on the others you should be paying attention to.

More: All about chiles

Now that you know all there is to know about the ever-versatile chile pepper, let’s turn our attention its condiment cousin. The term “chili paste” can be confusing because there are many types of pastes, sauces, and condiments living under the chili paste umbrella.

To get acquainted with chili paste, let’s start with the basics: Chili paste is a paste made of chile peppers. It can be just that: a thick pulp that traditionally comes from manually grinding chile peppers between two stones, such as in a mortar and pestle or metate. However, it can also be flavored, mixed, and thinned into more of a sauce while keeping the same name. Regardless of the consistency, look to chili pastes as a flavoring agent, a sauce base, a dipping sauce, and slathered on just about everything.

More: Think beyond anchovies: 5 flavor brighteners to buy right now

Given that chili pastes are used the world over, there are lots of different types and flavors available. For example, there are countless chili pastes in Mexico, which makes sense given that half the world’s chile peppers are grown there. We’ve isolated the chili pastes that will add great diversity to your cooking: Some may be familiar, others a bit more exotic, but they’re all exciting condiments to have around.

These are the chili pastes to know, whether they’re hot, fishy, spiced, fermented, or sweet(ish):

While all chili pastes have some degree of spiciness, these are the ones to use when you want to add serious heat. Use them to add a kick to soup, noodles, and sauce.

  • Piros Arany: This Hungarian paste is simple: just paprika and salt. While there are spicier and more mild iterations, Piros Arany, or Red Gold, is the most widely used and easiest to find.

  • La Jiao Jiang: When you think “hot chili paste,” there is a good chance this is what you are thinking of. The Chinese paste is made of solely of hot red peppers. You’re most likely to find it sold by Huy Fong.

  • Salsa de Rocoto: Closer to a sauce consistency, this chili paste from Peru is made from incredibly hot rocoto peppers. It’s used as a dip and on virtually any Peruvian dish, from chicken to rice.

More: Down & dirty: hot peppers

Chili pastes that have a hint of fishiness (in a good way) primarily come from Southeast Asia. Heat up any of your favorite Southeast Asian dishes, such as Andy Ricker’s Phat Si Ew, with these.

  • Nam Jim: A thin sauce from Thailand that includes both shrimp paste and fish sauce.

  • Naam Prik Pao: Nam Jim’s thicker cousin uses tamarind as well as fish and shrimp pastes.  

  • Shito: This paste hails from coastal Ghana, hence the use of dried fish. It also contains ginger and oil, which turn it into a thick dark paste.  

More: The differences between northern & southern Indian food

When pure heat is not enough, these chili pastes bring in aromatics. Try swirling any of these pastes into a fresh batch of hummus or shakshuka.

  • Harissa: This much-loved chili paste from Northern Africa has found its way into all sorts of dishes and is simple to make at home. Typical harissa includes vinegar, lemon, garlic, coriander, fennel, pepper, allspice, nutmeg, and tomato paste, along with red chile peppers.

  • Shatta: This Egyptian chili paste has a thick yet creamy consistency and, while there are many versions of shatta, most have a combination of tomatoes, cilantro, cumin, black pepper, parsley, and garlic.

  • Ajika or Adjika: A Georgian paste made with walnuts, hot peppers, and various spices including fenugreek. Its texture can range from viscous to soupy. 

  • S'rug: This Yemenite chili paste that goes by many names (s’chug, skhug, zhug, and s’rug to start) is used both in cooking and as a condiment—a must have for falafel and hummus. It is made with cilantro, green chilies, and garlic. It can then be spiced with cardamom, cumin, and coriander, but the amount and type of spices varies.

  • Ají de Maní: A peanut-based Colombian paste that’s thin and spicy. Popular spice additions include cilantro, clove, and cumin.

More: How to make homemade curry paste

Fermented chili pastes might just be the most enticing bunch of all, as they turn hot peppers into a deep, earthy concoction. Try making bibimbap or a dipping sauce for spring rolls.

  • Gochujang: A staple in Korean cooking. It is unique because it is made with glutinous rice powder, fermented soybeans, and red peppers. The consistency is incredibly thick and wildly appealing.

  • Sambal: There are many types of sambal. Sambal Terasi has Indonesian origins and features shrimp paste. Sambal Belacan is Malaysian and is heavy on the lime. And Sambal Olek, the most well-known variety, is nothing without garlic. 

More: 5 ways to add flavor to any vegetable dish

No chili paste is going to be sugary per se, but these blends have an enticing sweet quality to them. Try using them in chili, mole, or ceviche.

  • Ancho Chili Paste: Like we mentioned, there are too many Mexican chili pastes to include here. Ancho chili paste is worth discussing, though, because it is quite easy to find and adds both a subtle, rich heat and a warming quality to any dish it’s added to.

  • Biber Salçası: This Turkish paste is a mix of sun-dried red chile peppers and salt and can be either spicy or sweet depending on the peppers used.

  • Ají Amarillo Paste: This Peruvian staple is made by boiling and blending fresh ají amarillo chiles, which are subtly spicy orange chiles. They make for a lovely, bright chili paste that is supremely unique.

  • Sriracha: Yes, we are calling it sweet. Once you can push past the heat, this chili paste is indeed sweet. Have a bottle around, and you’re halfway to dinner.

Other things to keep in mind:

  • Should you find that you were a bit too zealous with your chili paste, there is a way to mellow out the flavor: sugar. Just add a bit to your dish to temper the heat.

  • Check the expiration labels of your chili pastes to see how long they’ll last. They should all be kept in the fridge, though.

  • You can indeed make your own chili paste: Simply soak dried chiles in water until soft, then grind—or blend—them into a paste. If you’re making chili paste from scratch, it is best to use the paste right away, though it will be fine in the fridge for up to a week.

First two photos by Bobbi Lin; Phat Si Ew by Austin Bush; Moroccan Merguez Ragout with Poached Eggs by Sarah Shatz; Cambodian-Style Spring Rolls by Nicole Franzen; Short Rib Chili by James Ransom.