My favorite feature of Laoganma’s Spicy Chili Crisp is its realistic serving size. Thanks to its nutrition label, which boldly declares that a 210-gram jar constitutes four servings, I’ve finally found a condiment that fully understands me. Let’s be honest: No one is stopping after just a spoonful of this spicy, tingly, salty, crunchy, aromatic, funky, and flavor-packed perfection.
For those who haven’t yet been initiated into the Spicy Chili Crisp fan club, this condiment, made by the Laoganma company, has amassed a cult-like following, quickly rising as China’s top-selling sauce. It owes its addictive nature to a winning combination of málà sauce and crunch. Málà sauce is a chili-oil condiment made by simmering chilies, Sichuan peppercorns, and spices in oil. The resulting aromatic oil is both numbing (má) and hot (là), but what sets Laoganma’s chili crisp apart is the “crisp” side of the equation. Packed with roasted soy nuts, fried onion, and fried garlic, it truly has everything you’ll ever need.
Laoganma’s line of sauces and oils was started in 1996 by a woman named Tao Huabi. She had originally opened a noodle shop, in 1989, but the spicy chili sauce she tossed her noodles in soon became more popular than the noodles themselves, so she did the world a favor and started bottling it.
My version isn’t exactly like the original; it’s more like the love child of Laoganma and Frito-Lay. I’ve jam-packed my chili crisp with such an unreasonable amount of fried shallots and garlic chips that it risks slipping into snack territory. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve been known to dig straight into this stuff with a spoon.
Beyond the crunch, I opt for a triple threat of heat from árbol, japones, and Kashmiri red chilies. All three of these varieties pack a serious punch, which silently increases in intensity as the finished condiment lurks in your pantry. If you prefer less of a full-frontal palate attack, substitute them with any other, milder chilies you have around.
To prep the chilies, I first de-seed them—not to lower the spice level, but to improve the texture of the chili crisp. The seeds in dried chilies tend to be leathery and tough, so it’s important to remove most of them. In larger dried chilies, it’s a quick and simple task—just snip off the top and shake out the seeds. For smaller chilies, like the árbol and japones peppers in my chili crisp, handling each one individually can be a long and tedious chore. Because a few seeds won’t hurt the final condiment, I instead quickly snip the chilies with kitchen shears, or crush them with gloved hands over a wire rack set in a sheet tray. After a quick shake, most of the seeds will sift off, leaving the cleaned chilies behind.
Next, I pulse the chilies in a spice grinder until they’re broken into pieces just larger than a standard chili flake. I transfer the chili flakes to a large heatproof bowl before topping them with the other spices. Of course, I include a generous amount of ground Sichuan peppercorns for their floral aromatics and numbing powers, but I also add bonus spices for a subtle backdrop to all that peppery bite—black pepper and fresh ginger for additional layers of heat, along with cumin, red cardamom, and star anise. But feel free to mix and match, or even leave out these extra spices entirely.
Besides that, I add kosher salt, sugar, MSG, and mushroom powder—a trick Chef Danny Bowien, of the Mission Chinese Food restaurants, uses to add extra umami and natural MSG to his own chili crisp recipe. Both the MSG and the mushroom powder give my chili crisp the mouthwatering and addictive quality found in the original Laoganma version. If you prefer not to use MSG, you can also omit it.
For the “crisp” side of the crisp, I prefer peanuts over soy nuts for their fatty crunch. And, because I want a surplus of crunch running through the chili oil, I thinly slice my shallots and garlic, using a mandoline, before frying. The key to achieving evenly fried shallots and garlic is to start with uniform and thin slices, and the mandoline is the best tool for the job.
To fry the shallots, I start them in cold peanut oil over high heat and stir constantly. As the shallots lose their moisture and the bubbling subsides, they quickly transform from flaccid and pale to golden and crisp. When they’re a shade lighter than tan, strain the shallots through a fine-mesh sieve, reserving the oil. They won’t appear truly crisp and golden until they’ve come out of the oil, after which the residual heat will help them reach a crisp, golden brown.
Return the oil to the pot and add the thinly sliced garlic, then fry over medium-low heat until it’s barely browned before straining. Garlic can quickly become bitter, so it’s important to stop cooking long before it hits golden brown.
The peanut oil is now fully flavored with shallots and garlic, making it the perfect base for the chili crisp. I return the oil to the pot one more time and heat it up before pouring it over the dried chilies, spices, and peanuts. This quickly fries everything, blooming the spices and getting the flavors mingling. Once this málà base is cool, I stir in the fried shallots and garlic chips, and it’s ready.
Sure, technically chili crisp is a condiment, but I prefer to think of it as a lifestyle. I can’t sit down to a meal without it, and making it at home has opened me up to terrifying new possibilities. No longer must it be confined to the tingling world of Sichuan; with just a few tweaks—some clever chili swaps and spice upgrades—chili crisp can go global. Pasilla and morita chilies paired with cinnamon, cloves, and achiote give it a Mexican twist, while Kashmiri red chilies combined with garam masala and diced mango pickle take it on a trip to India.
Luckily, regardless of where you take your chili crisp, you know you can confidently put it on anything. If you’re a purist, toss it into noodles or use it as a topper for rice and ramen. Or be reckless and scoff at tradition, stirring it into creamy risotto and stuffing it inside a fluffy tamale.