What did you do on Sundays as a kid?
My Sunday routine, for as long as I can remember, was going to yum cha with my family and grandma after church.
There were favourites for each of us: beef mince balls and steamed rice rolls for me especially, but siu mai (steamed pork, prawns and mushroom) is the dim sum for our table. These little parcels are so yum to eat I secretly didn’t want to share (but such is the essence of yum cha).
Doused with an excessive amount of Worcestershire sauce (colloquially known as ‘gip zup’) I always have it with the restaurant’s chilli oil.
Most of the time you have to ask for these – it’s not something the restaurants would want to waste if a customer didn’t need it, and they had already placed it on the table along with the tea.
It would also be a sign of the chefs’ skills and attitude; thinking of how the condiments pair with their dishes. If they are house-made, they often taste better.
Here’s my version: Aromatic Chilli Oil made with slow and low-infused oil, poured over Sichuan pepper flakes. They work with most things – even fried egges on toast and chowder!
We’ve been missing our favourite noodle shop during lockdown, and with the memories of their chilli oil still lingering, I had to make these quick smart, to go with my fakeaway noodles with pickled mustard greens.
The secret to a great and flavourful chilli oil lies in the aromatics used to infuse the oil. A blend of spices, simmered in a low- temperature oil, then poured over chilli flakes. That’s it! So easy and so straightforward. Likely to become gifts in the future.
For a great chilli oil, there are a few notes to consider:
- Decide if you are adding other things to the chilli oil – sesame seeds, garlic, shallots, peanuts are the usual but here I’ve kept it pure and simple.
- Oil temperature for infusion – keep it lowish so that the oil is hot enough for flavours to be extracted but not so hot that it’s bubbling away and potentially burning your aromatics.
- How long are aromatics infusing in the oil for – I left it for more than an hour and it resulted in this wonderful rich aroma that was in my view, better than a 30-minute infusion.
The choice of spices for the infusion is really up to you and your preference. I’ve used:
- 5 star anise
- 2 tsp cloves
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 3 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorns
- 500ml canola oil
For chilli flakes:
- 300g Sichuan chilli flakes
- 1 tsp salt
I’ve got to mention this term here: “right amount”: I sometimes see auto-translated Chinese recipes with this description next to ingredients. That’s not very helpful is it? Recipes are supposed to say what amount is required for each ingredient.
Well when it comes to Chinese dishes, savouries in particular, it is loosely left at “the right amount” for a lot of generic ingredients. 適量 simply means you need to add a suitable amount for your dish – taking into account up or down-scaling of what is shown in a recipe, and also personal preference. I’ve learnt it this way from my parents too, most if not all marinade ingredients are measured by eye. Literally pouring it in, sprinkling in and not measured. These days, in order to write the recipe out for everyone, I weigh the additions as I go, with the scale tared and sitting underneath the bowl of meat I’m adding sauces into.
It’s giving the cook the decision-making power based on their own taste buds and ingredients, acknowledging these will vary from person to person, region to region. I realise it’s also having an assumption that everyone has a basic understanding of how much to add. Thus I try my best to avoid saying “suitable amount” in my recipes.
I’ve also recently learnt that Malaysians have a similar saying: “agak agak” to mean rough estimate. How cool to know this approximate way of cooking isn’t just from one part of Asia (read this from @nonya.global’s page).
What I’m saying is, the recipe amounts of and indeed ingredients themselves can be deviated from and substituted with other spices!
Here’s the ‘how’ in steps:
- Heat oil and aromatics in a deep pot.
- Heat over medium heat to 110C. Once you see bubbles around the aromatics, turn it down to the lowest setting and let it continue to cook for an hour. It should not sizzle!
- When the infusion time is up, place chilli flakes and salt into a large heat- proof bowl. Place a fine sieve over the bowl.
- Carefully pour the hot aromatic oil through the sieve and over the chili flakes. It will sizzle for a little and then settle away into the most beautiful glossy orange tone.
- Ladle into sterilised jars (seeds and oil) and use as required.