Making Lajiaojiang (Hot Pickled Chili Sauce)
Perfect Pickled Pepper Sauce
My 15-year-old daughter is a chili fiend. Just like her mom. Also just like me, in U.S. restaurants she bypasses the sriracha and goes straight for the sambal oelek. Made by the same folks (California’s Huy Fong Foods) that make Thai-style Rooster sriracha—America’s favorite Asian hot sauce—their Indonesian-style sambal is a thicker, purer chili experience. It is nothing but chili, salt and vinegar (plus preservatives and a thickener) and as such is close in taste to Sichuan’s pickled peppers, paolajiao, and a better match for Chinese food than smooth, garlicky sriracha, in my opinion.
We go through a lot of sambal oelek, but in early fall, when our garden is bursting with an assortment of chili peppers—as are farmer’s markets for those of you who don’t grow your own—we like to make our own chili sauce. The fresh, non-cooked version we make is well suited for Sichuan recipes that call for pickled chili peppers.
Many Sichuan dishes, including, most notably, many of the dishes in the yuxiang, or fish-fragrant, family, call for pickled red chili peppers. In fact, according to Sichuan Cuisine in Both Chinese and English, pickled chilies are also called fish chilies, since they are often used to counteract the smell of fish, though yuxiang sauces are also used with pork, tofu and many other non-fishy dishes.
In my experience of shopping in Chinese supermarkets in the U.S., this is not an ingredient you can easily purchase. The couple of times I have found bags of pickled red chilies from Sichuan for sale, the packages have been way past their expiration date and slightly scary looking. This is a state of affairs often seen in Chinese-American markets, and you have to be diligent about checking expiration dates, but it is perhaps understandable with those products that are not often purchased at markets because they are easily made at home.
You can buy pickled chilies from the pickle vendor at a Chengdu wetmarket, but many people just make their own, since traditionally most homes have had a pickle crock that they keep constantly topped up with various vegetables for snacking and cooking. This type of Chinese pickle, or paocai, is made in a salt brine, without vinegar, and relies on natural fermentation for its bite.
This is not a recipe for paocai, but rather a shortcut that approximates the flavor and texture of a Sichuan-style pickled pepper. I’m almost always mincing the pickled chilies for inclusion in a recipe, so I just make a minced pickled chili sauce and save myself that step. I also use a bit of vinegar instead of relying on natural fermentation, as successfully fermenting fresh chilies requires a very high-percentage salt brine due to their high water content. If you prefer natural fermentation, forgo the vinegar and increase the salt. This is really just a lightly pickled fresh chili sauce, and it’s very versatile as an ingredient or condiment.
The Sichuanese use erjingtiao chilies, which are long and moderately hot. We don’t have a comparable chili available in the U.S. When I make my own, I use a mix of red chilies from my garden, including cayenne, red serrano and Thai hot chilies. Sometimes I supplement with Fresno chilies from the market, and I usually tame the heat with some red bell pepper to bring the heat to the erjingtiao level. I want it to be hot, but not so hot that I can’t use it in larger quantities. It’s important that they be red chilies, but otherwise you can use whatever you can find and then adjust it to your desired heat level with the bells.
I like my chili sauce to taste of pure chilies, but you can easily make this into a chili garlic sauce by pureeing fresh garlic cloves in with the peppers. Either way, I usually let the sauce sit for a day, loosely covered, at room temperature to develop the flavors before I refrigerate it. It will keep for several weeks.
Making Lajiaojiang (Hot Pickled Chili Sauce)
- 1 pound hot red chili peppers (Fresno, red jalapeño, cayenne, Thai, etc., or a mix of all of them)
- 1 red bell pepper (to tame heat, if needed)
- ¼ cup distilled white vinegar (5% acidity)
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- Cut hot chili peppers into smallish chunks, including green caps (but not stems).
- Chop in a food processor to a chunky paste. Taste to determine heat. If it is too hot, add bell pepper a chunk at a time to lower the heat level. Continue to process to your desired heat level and consistency.
- Mix in the vinegar and salt.
- Put in a glass pint jar, attach top loosely, and let sit for a day at room temperature to develop the flavor.
- Seal tightly and refrigerate up to several weeks.
It’s positively criminal that there are no comments on this post yet!! We will DEFINITELY be trying this. We used to go to this amazing Hunan restaurant in NJ (sadly it changed hands), and the boss lady made her la jiao jiang from scratch. We were always amazed and in awe, because it was the best we’d ever had, but we must do a little experimenting of our own after seeing how easy it is!
This is the basic recipe. Pure chilies. But I can’t wait to see how you personalize it!
I’ve been able to buy these Sichuan pickled chilis in Boston. They seem nicer than the plastic bag versions. The last batch of the plastic bag versions I bought were a little flat.
Ooh, those look great! I haven’t seen those anywhere, but will definitely be on the hunt. They do look fresher and better than the bagged ones I’ve seen. Thanks for the heads-up!
Josh, where in Boston did you find those. I have been looking in Quincy but to no avail…
Great timing for your question. I just ordered some pickled red erjintiao chilies from Chengdu online at Posharp: http://www.posharpstore.com/en/chengdu-yingpeng-pickled-red-chili-peppers-29-lbs
Fortunately for you, Posharp is based in Quincy and has a brick and mortar store there.
I love this recipe. I like it hot so I made it with all red serrano from my garden. I think it is great on so many dishes from Mexican to Chinese. Had it on grilled hamburgers last night, delicious!
Cool! I’m about to make some from my last batch of summer peppers too. Thanks for letting me know.
Found a similar recipe in Taiwan Duck. Theirs had garlic and ginger added and rice wine, or bai jiu insgead of vinegar. Made some yesterday will wait for it to age.
Thanks for this. Plain pickled red chilies are surprisingly hard to find in shops near me (Seattle). However I have made Hunanese chopped salted chilies before and those are delicious, and I figured that’s somewhat similar in flavor.
In this recipe you use a little vinegar instead of doing a long natural fermentation with only salt. Do you prefer it this way or is it a shortcut? I don’t mind waiting a couple weeks for fermentation. I’m just looking for the best substitute for this ingredient since it’s so hard to find.
Apologies for the slow reply to this great question.
It is true that you seldom see real Sichuan pickled chilies in the U.S., which is because it is so difficult to import non-vinegar pickles and other low-acid foods. So you do need to make your own. The problem, however, is that we don’t have a chili in the U.S. that is similar to the chili used in Sichuan, the er jing tiao.
My thoughts on this have evolved over time. As you guessed, this recipe using whatever fresh red chilies you can find did use a touch of vinegar to speed the process, but also to make it possible to use less salt. I have found that fresh chilies take a lot of salt to ferment without unwanted funk, and Sichuan pickled chilies don’t taste super salty.
But since I wrote this recipe, we have begun importing whole dried er jing tiao, and I have found that they rehydrate and pickle beautifully. Pickle them in a salt brine and they taste very much like the Sichuan pickled er jing tiao used in cooking. Also, the low water content of the dried chilies makes it easier to ferment them for a week or so with less salt. (I use the same pickling recipe as our pao cai.)
Otherwise, you can ferment fresh fresno or such without the vinegar and/or with more salt as long as you don’t ferment too long. They are meant to be only slightly pickled and not super sour or salty in any case (and certainly not smelly/funky).