Chili or "Red" Oil (Hong You) 自製辣椒醬
  • 2 c. peanut, corn, or other mild vegetable oil
  • ½ c. chili flakes—these can be purchased in bulk at many supermarkets and whole-food stores, or in packets at Hispanic markets—imagine the dried red pepper in shakers at pizza places and you’ll know what you are looking for.
  • Optional: Small piece of fresh ginger root, a few Sichuan peppercorns, or a star-anise pod added to the hot oil, or a little salt or dark sesame oil, added when cool
  1. First, have a heatproof quart-size preserving jar ready. Make sure it’s got plenty of room, as you will be working fast with hot oil. A quart-size Pyrex measuring cup will work, too, and you can then transfer the oil to a jar. I also suggest placing it on a towel on a tray, so you can carry it outside.
  2. Put the chili flakes in the heatproof jar or bowl with the optional ginger, peppercorns, or star anise.
  3. Heat the oil in a clean, dry saucepan till it is smoking hot (225°F–250°F on a thermometer). Pour the oil over the chili flakes and allow it to cool. Cover tightly and store in a cool place or the refrigerator. Add the salt or dark sesame oil, if desired.
Spicy Chinese food came to the United States in the 1980s, when suddenly Hunan and Sichuan restaurants began offering American spicy dishes that hadn’t been known outside ethnic Chinese enclaves before. (Until then, American Chinese food was a bland and rather sweet version of Cantonese cuisine.) About the same time, Mexican food was moving into the mainstream, which was a bad thing for Chinese cuisine because it created the “Dorito effect”: instead of original, light, fresh dishes from southern China, we were hit with the heat from chilies without the range and depth of the original Hunan and Sichuan dishes. The good news is that Americans and Europeans discovered a little more about the range of Chinese cuisines as a whole. The bad news is that it remained in the cheap fast-food category. But times are changing. It’s far easier to buy ingredients for Chinese and other Asian cooking, and sophisticated cookery writers are looking beyond the basics of Chinese-American cuisine and introducing us to some of the dishes - and flavors - that are loved in China. I’ve met many Americans who have lived in China and acquired a passion for a sauce called simply “red oil,” hong you (pronounced hong-yo), or “hot oil,” la you. Here is a recipe for 自製辣椒醬—Homemade Red Chili Oil—from our friend Scott Savitt, who leads with a quotation from Chairman Mao: “不吃辣椒不革命—毛澤東 "If you don't eat spicy chilies, you're not a real revolutionary." Delicious commercial varieties are available in Asian food stores, too. The type I buy has a distinctive container, as you can see in the photo.

The most common chant to encourage someone, commonly a sports team or athlete, in China is 加油 jiā yóu, meaning to "add oil." As gasoline in Chinese is 汽油 qìyóu, this is commonly translated as "step on the gas," although it has become a general chant incorporating meanings of encouragement, congratulations, and being impressed.

For those who love heat, I’ve found that hong you (homemade or store-bought from any Asian supermarket) is delicious with many dishes from other cuisines. Here are my current favorites:

With hummus. Put a large spoonful on a dish of hummus or add to a hummus sandwich. My favorite sandwich at the moment is a wheat-oat pita pocket filled with mesclun greens, hummus, and hong you. I like store-bought hong you but prefer homemade hummus to the store-bought variety, and it’s easy to make.
With avocado. Halve the avocado, dice inside the skin, and add a blob of hong you. Add a little salt.
On jicama slices with a cold beer. When I was in Mexico in 1979, one of the treats on the street was large, round slices of crisp, snowy jicama with—as I soon learned—the classic combination: red chili powder from a shaker and fresh lemon juice squeezed by hand. You can use very fresh cayenne powder or even paprika, hot or sweet, for this, but I’ve been using a dribble of hong you after I squeeze on the lemon or lime juice.
In any simple vegetable dish that needs a kicker. For example, I made a simple vegan supper - part of a New Year cleansing diet - by panfrying slices of smoked tempeh, cutting each into three or four bite-sized pieces, then sautéing red onion and Swiss chard, and tossing it all together. This would have been dull if not for the fillip of hong you.

Historian Caroline Reeves writes about the introduction of the Native American chili pepper to China during the Qing dynasty, with the first known reference dated 1671. She explains that culinary scientists have found that chili is chemically addictive: “When capsaicinoids [one of the alkaloids that give chilis their punch] come into contact with the nerve endings in the tongue and mouth, the brain is tricked into thinking that your tongue and mouth are actually on fire. . . . The brain, perceiving it has been injured, secretes a natural painkiller, endorphin, that acts like morphine. This is the chili high” (Haverluk 2002, 46). You can buy hong you ready-made in Chinatown, but if you live outside a major city, it is easy to make from common ingredients and gives an authentic flavor to Chinese dishes—so authentic that I’ve had guests open their eyes wide. “It tastes right. Authentic,” one said. A technique I learned from Chinese cookbook author Fuchsia Dunlop transformed my hong you, but beware: the heat of chili peppers vaporizes. When I made the recipe below, everyone in the house was sneezing and coughing for 20 minutes, so next time I plan to carry the hot oil (carefully!) outside, on a tray set up and ready, and then pour the smoking oil over the chili flakes.