We cannot speak highly enough of this recipe. Our household is addicted to it- we put it on absolutely everything! No doubt, Szechuan peppercorns powers to numb your mouth have been compared by many to a naturally induced high. Obviously, in Hong Kong you can find many versions this at most supermarkets and grocery stores. But when we love something, we have to make it our own. Our version is so incredibly layered and complex flavour-wise. Here are some of the ways we use it: drizzled on creamy vegan cheese smeared toasted sourdough slices, as a quiche condiment, along with lightly steamed Chinese greens, in any number of Szechuan recipes, to flavour homemade pizza, in your cabbage slaw dressing…Not to mention you can use it as an ingredient to make other mouth-watering condiments like Szechuan mayonnaise (chilli oil + mayo), Szechuan peanut sauce (chilli oil + peanut butter), Szechuan mustard (chilli oil + mustard)- you get the idea…
This recipe require a couple of hours of your time and has a long list of ingredients, but it is technically extremely simple (and mostly involves waiting for the oil to get infused) so don’t be intimidated. It is so very worth it, we promise!
A Few Words On Oil
One of the most important reasons that we make our own version of Szechuan chilli oil is that we get to control the oil used. Many of the store-bought ones use low-grade canola/rapeseed oil, soyabean oil, peanut oil or sunflower oil…none of which we ever stock in our kitchen. We don’t have time to go into the importance of quality plant fats in your diet here but basically, we don’t touch anything but quality virgin olive oil, coconut oil and raw butter. You could try and make this recipe with ghee (clarified butter) or with coconut oil but both have an aftertaste and both get solid at room temperature- far from ideal. Since this recipe requires you to expose the oil to heat, you don’t want to go with cold/first pressed olive oil. Firstly, first/cold-pressed olive oil has a strong fruitiness and oftentimes bitter/peppery after taste, which makes it a poor fit for an infusion recipe like this one, where you want a blank canvas oil, so to speak, in order to have it absorb the aromas and tastes of the spices. Secondly, the whole point of first/cold pressed olive oil is that it has never been exposed to heat (it is extracted using a mechanical press)- this is a time-consuming and costly process, which is why the oil is so expensive. So if you expose it to heat, you are killing all the anti-oxidants that you are paying for! Save this special olive oil for salad dressings, dips and raw recipes. Our Szechuan chilli oil recipe calls for simmering (never boiling) the oil on low heat, so a good quality, light olive oil works best. Light olive oil is olive oil that has been filtered using heat, which means its antioxidants profile has been greatly reduced- but this does not affect our recipe at all since we are not consuming our Szechuan Chilli Oil specifically for antioxidant purposes. The filtration process helps to increase the smoke point too, which makes it a safer choice for recipes that require heating the oil.
Fresh, fresh, fresh! That’s the name of the game. Get the freshest whole spices you can get your hands on and avoid pre-ground (we made an exception for the white pepper but only because we had ground it ourselves). Source the best quality you can find too- there are a lot of crappy, low-grade spices out there. Szechuan peppercorns should have an intense scent that makes you a little heady. Star anise, cinnamon sticks, cloves- all need to be packed with aroma- weak spices simply won’t do!
Oil Infusion Ingredients
- 1/2 tsp cloves
- 1/2 tbsp coriander seeds
- 3-4 cinnamon sticks
- 7-8 star anise fruit pods
- 1/2 tbsp fennel seeds
- 1/2 tbsp Szechuan peppercorns
- 1/2 tbsp ground white pepper (or 2 tsp whole white peppercorns)
- 9-10 garlic cloves, peeled
- 10 Chinese spring onions/scallions, peeled, washed and with most of the green top part trimmed (each should be about 10cm)
- 3-4 4cm pieces of peeled ginger
Chilli & Peppercorn Ingredients
- 1/3 cup Szechuan peppercorns
- 1/2 cup dried red chillies
- 1.5 tsp sea salt (we use Maldon’s flakes, but pink Himalayan salt would work too. Please, no iodized table salt)
Other Ingredients/Items You Need
- 1 L light olive oil (do not use cold-pressed, extra virgin olive oil as it has too strong a taste to work here, plus that grade of olive oil should not be heated
- 1 large shallow cast-iron/steel pan (avoid non-stick or any kind of coated pan, the chemicals used can interfere with the oil’s taste)
- food processor (or blender)
- large metal or glass bowl (never use plastic for hot oil, and wood bowls are not ideal either, as the fibers absorb the oil so your bowl will lend anything else you make numbing spiciness)
- glass mason jar/jam jar/condiment jar (do not store oil condiments in plastic)
Add the Oil Infusion Ingredients into your pan and cover with the olive oil.
Simmer for 1.5 to 2 hours on low heat until the oil has absorbed all the spice goodness and the ingredients are fully cooked- some may be charred. Make sure to taste, the oil should be fragrant and full of flavour.
Meanwhile, blend the Chilli & Peppercorn Ingredients for up to a minute. You are not trying to pulverize the stuff, just getting it into a homogenous spice mix.
Add blended mix to a metal/glass bowl and set aside.
Once oil is infused, remove from heat and strain it. Discard the cooked spices, onions, garlic and ginger.
Pour strained oil over the spice mix in the bowl. Let cool to room temperature. Then, pour everything into a glass mason jar/jam jar/condiment jar. Store at room temperature, away from light and heat. Keeps for up to 3 months.
All images courtesy of Sonalie Figueiras/ Green Queen Media.