Chili Crisp Is the Chinese Condiment Popping Up at Restaurants and on Grocery Store Shelves Everywhere

·5 min read

You may have seen spicy chili crisp on Trader Joe's shelves (Joe calls it "Chili Onion Crunch"), heating up countless recipes swirling around social media, or perhaps offered as a bonus ingredient on your Asian cuisine takeout orders. On one online retail site alone, David Chang's Momofuku Chili Crunch has garnered more than 1,200 five-star fan reviews.

The condiment is so hot—literally and figuratively—that chili crisp has a cult-like following at this point. That's likely because it's incredibly versatile and is not just burn-your-face-off hot; it's complex and layered with spicy, umami, and tangy flavors. While the concept of chili crisp condiment is far from new (read on for more about the history), it certainly was one of the most popular pantry staples of the pandemic with a drastic jump in related Google searches during 2020.

In this complete guide to the chili crisp condiment, we'll answer "what is chili crisp?" plus dive into how to make your own spicy chili crisp and brands you can buy, then dish about recipes using spicy chili crisp.

Dera Burreson

What Is Chili Crisp, Exactly?

Spicy chili crisp is an infused oil condiment that typically includes crunchy, flavorful bits of peppers, onions or scallions, garlic, and other aromatics. You may see it labeled "chili crisp," "chili crisp oil," or even "chili sauce." One thing that makes chili crisp different from other hot sauce recipes: the ratio of crispy bits to oil, which results in a crunchy texture you don't want to stop eating.

Infused oil condiments have been used across Asia for centuries, and many restaurants in China make their own rendition. Each varies slightly based on the oil and chili they utilize as well as the spices and aromatics they infuse.

Related: A Beginner's Guide to Olive Oil vs. Vegetable Oil

Commercial chili crisp condiments hit the market in 1997, when Lao Gan Ma began bottling and selling their spicy chili crisp after noticing how popular it was at their noodle shop in the Guizhou province of southern China.

While most varieties still highlight Chinese elements, chili crisp is now doing some globe-trotting. A few small ingredient changes can take the final flavor to new culinary lands, including India (Kashmiri chiles with cardamom) and Mexico (pasilla chiles with cinnamon).

How to Make Chili Crisp

Here at BH&G, we crave chili crisp so much that we tapped Sammy Mila, a culinary specialist and food stylist in the Better Homes & Gardens Test Kitchen, to develop a homemade chili crisp condiment. This way, we're never more than 45 minutes and a few dollars away from a new bottle of spicy chili crisp.

To make chili crisp condiment, you can use any neutral-flavored, high-smoke-point oil like canola, vegetable, or soybean oil. After heating the oil in a saucepan over medium heat, add the supplemental spices and aromatics. Our homemade chili crisp includes ginger and star anise, but fennel seeds, Sichuan peppercorns, cinnamon sticks, or cumin seeds would also work wonderfully. Cook for about 10 minutes to infuse the oil, remove the seeds from the oil, then turn down the heat to medium-low. Add shallots and garlic and slowly simmer until the garlic is browned, about 25 to 30 minutes.

"Frying the alliums takes time and patience. Don't rush it or you'll burn it, and you'll need to start over," Mila advises. "You want to slowly extract all the flavor out of the bits and create crispy, shallot and garlic 'sprinkles.' This low and slow method of frying is also a great technique to make crispy toppers and a flavored oil—all at the same time."

As that cooks, in a medium heat-proof bowl combine red chili flakes (or your crushed chili of choice), brown sugar for sweetness to complement the heat, plus soy sauce and umami seasoning, such as MSG or Takii Umami Powder ($10, Amazon) to round out the flavor explosion.

Related: Yes, MSG Is Safe to Eat, Plus Everything Else to Know About the Flavor Enhancer

Carefully add the hot, infused oil to the seasoning mixture, stir to combine, and allow the chili crisp to cool completely before transferring to a pint-sized jar ($12, Bed Bath & Beyond). For best results, let it sit at least overnight in the refrigerator to marinate, then use within the next month...although ours never lasts that long.

The Best Chili Crisp Condiments to Buy

If you'd rather buy spicy chili crisp than DIY, try these popular brands.

How to Use Chili Crisp

Now that you know all about spicy chili crisp, how to make it, and where to buy it, let's dive into the nearly endless possibilities for recipes using spicy chili crisp.

"It is such a versatile condiment to stock in your home kitchen! Use it like you would hot sauce," Mila says. "My personal favorite uses: On avocado toast or any toast with a runny egg, in dumpling sauce for zip, or in brothy soups to really bring them to life!"

Even more uses for—and recipes using—spicy chili crisp:

Now that you're an expert in all things spicy chili crisp, you'll never want to cook in a kitchen that doesn't have a jar.