Sichuan’s Pickled Chili Crisp (Zhalajiao, 渣辣椒)
Published Sep 08, 2021, Updated Jun 17, 2023
Taste of the Sichuan Countryside
This recipe for 渣辣椒 (zhālàjiāo), or 渣海椒 (zhāhǎijiāo) in some areas, was a long time coming to our family dining table here in the United States. An all-purpose seasoning of fermented chili in cornmeal, zhalajiao (or “pickled chili crisp” as I’m calling it in English) can be stir-fried or steamed with any dish—and when pan-fried alone, the crispy accompaniment dresses up everything from plain white rice to 回锅肉 (huíguōròu). Mala Mama last tasted this traditional Sichuan dish in 1988, when my dad’s aunt brought a batch to her in Chengdu all the way from Nanchong, 143 miles away.
Although they both call Sichuan home, it was my dad’s farming side of the family who introduced zhalajiao to Ma, a city gal from Chongzhou. For rural farming folk and poor families, homemade zhalajiao—along with 豆瓣酱 (dòubànjiàng)—was a historical staple because it stretched the chili harvest and pantry rations when food was scarce. My dad was born into the Great Famine and often recalls having nothing to eat with his rice but a little zhalajiao or douban, which made the slightest bites taste like luxury. Trust that after years like that, you really know how to make whatever food you have taste good.
Colloquially, we express this mouthwatering quality as “好下饭 (hǎo xià fàn),” a designation for all the tasty dishes that pair exceptionally well with 饭 (fàn), rice, to help it all “go down.”
Choosing peppers for pickling
The intense flavor payoff for zhalajiao comes from pickling fresh 二荆条 (èrjīngtiáo) peppers, picked at the height of summer, in lots of salt and stone-ground cornmeal, then allowing the mixture to ferment in earthen jars for several weeks before cooking as desired.
Back then, our relatives had traditional stone mills to hand-grind their own corn, but thankfully that isn’t necessary now. On the other hand, finding fresh erjingtiao is impossible in the States, and we haven’t tried growing from seed yet. Moreover, our shaded backyard simply never experienced the prolific pepper harvest zhalajiao was made for until last summer.
You can certainly use any fresh chili from the market, but this peasant dish’s appeal includes its resourcefulness and frugality. Ma says it never made sense to buy the chilis to make it—evidently despite thinking about it for 32 years.
Zhalajiao’s incredible versatility is apparent within the whole pickling process. Several Sichuan-adjacent regions make their own versions of zhalajiao, like the native Tujia of Enshi, Hubei (English subtitles available), for whom zhalajiao is a traditional staple. Without erjingtiao here, we made do with some particularly generous 风铃椒(fēnglíngjiāo) plants, a Capsicum baccatum varietal known as Bishop’s crown.
The batch depicted here is from last year’s harvest, which we pickled 青 (qīng), green. Combining riper red and younger green chilis lends the mix an attractive, colorful mien, but there’s no “wrong” pickling pepper. In fact, my dad remembers eating just green chili zhalajiao (as pictured) because they saved red chilis for making douban.
The only thing to be mindful of is heat level. Choose a pepper whose heat you can stand and treat it like chili crisp—if it’s too hot, use less, and if it’s not hot enough, simply add a load of 小米辣 (xiǎomǐlà) or Thai bird’s eye chilis (or at least that’s how it works in our house).
Choosing grain for zhalajiao
Flour content varies regionally as well, but the proportion to the peppers should stay around a 1:1 weight ratio. The coarse cornmeal (most similar to grits) featured in this recipe seems commonly used throughout Hunan, Hubei and Chongqing. Guizhou and Yunnan may use a combination of rice and glutinous rice flours; millet appears in other regions.
Personally, we’ve now tried a variety of flour mixes and prefer the toothsome, sweet crisp afforded by a coarser corn grind.
On salt content for lacto-ferments
The only component that should not be altered is the salt ratio*. Zhalajiao requires 15-20% salt by weight—use too little, and your chili will spoil before you can eat it. Use too much, and the mixture won’t ferment. We suggest using scales until you’ve mastered cooking the traditional Chinese way, aka eyeballing everything and calling it a day. (There’s even a phrase for this: 差不都 (chàbuduō), about right, close enough, more or less, etc; literally “difference not much.” Getting actual measurements for this recipe may’ve been the most difficult step for Ma, who, like many immigrant mothers, is notorious for unironically replying “Eh… chabuduo” whenever I ask “How much ____ do we need?”)
Stick to our ratio the first time, then adjust incrementally if needed. Similar to cooking with doubanjiang, the actual amount of zhalajiao used at a time is adjustable, and you should simply omit extra salt when adding zhalajiao to other dishes.
*It’s important to keep in mind that zhalajiao was and is pickled as necessary foodstuff with the ability to outlast the availability of fresh produce. Salt is therefore a main ingredient, not an add-to-taste flavoring. In fact, if your zhalajiao tastes sour after fermenting for three weeks, it has gone bad due to insufficient salt. So if you are averse to saltiness, this recipe may not appeal to your tastebuds. Unlike other fermented pickles, you will not be able to simply rinse or cook the saltiness out of zhalajiao. This is a salty dish.
Lastly, pack the zhalajiao into clean, airtight containers and squirrel away in a dark place where it can ferment undisturbed. Below, I’ve shown a variety of containers we use for pickling; use whatever you have. No need for a special 泡菜坛 (pàocài tán), Sichuan pickling jar, if you don’t have one—though The Mala Market’s new mouth-blown glass jar is an attractive and functional option that also allows you to keep an eye on the fermentation process. Just make sure your containers are sterilized and free of oil.
Mason jars also work great (no need to heat-process), and so do any other resealable glass containers you’ve saved. For jars with questionably airtight 1-piece lids, like our repurposed jars, we lay plastic wrap across the opening and secure with a rubber band before spinning the lid back on.
In two to three weeks, the pickled chili will be ready for our favorite pan-fry method. We love it piping hot from the skillet on 馒头 (mántou), 稀饭 (xīfàn), noodles, rice and more! The cornmeal in zhalajiao gets its savory taste with a tall drink of oil. Ma cuts the oil down for everything, but not this: Resist the urge to skimp.
If you’ve been wondering how to put your Sichuan 菜籽油 (càizǐyóu) to use, it’s perfect here. The Mala Market is basically the U.S.’s exclusive online carrier for Sichuan’s iconic roasted rapeseed oil. We never found this in-store or online beyond big-city Chinatowns until it hit The Mala Market, although Ma has spent years searching.
How to cook and eat zhalajiao
There are many ways to stir-fry and steam the pan-fried pickled chili crisp into another dish. Top off potato stir-fries (imagine these roasted potatoes in 豆豉 (dòuchǐ) chili oil, but wok-fried in medallions and married to crispy chili goodness) or cook them into my dad’s favorite 回锅肉 (huíguōròu) twice-cooked pork. When supplementing other fare, we recommend adding a generous amount toward the middle or end of cooking, after any meat. In the video above, it’s even stewed into a paste after pan-frying to create a curry-like dish, delicious over rice! Personally though, we love it best as a topping to preserve its crispiness.
We’re curious to know what you think of this dish and hope you give it a try. To our knowledge, no one had written—much less blogged—about this unique regional dish outside of China. Upon digging, however, I was surprised to find a cursory mention (albeit with toasted ground rice, not cornmeal) by Fuchsia Dunlop in her Sichuan cooking anthology, The Food of Sichuan—which we carry here.
That still makes us the first U.S. cooks and Western diaspora writers with family ties to the dish to bring its history and flavor to you, dear reader.
Interested in Sichuan’s ancient, world-famous practice of making 泡菜 (pàocài), naturally fermented pickles? Read more in Taylor’s guide to paocai (updated Aug. 2021)!
Pickled Chili Crisp (Zhalajiao, 渣辣椒)
- Food processor (optional)
- Mixing bowl
- Clean resealable jars
- 500 grams fresh chili pepper heat level of preference
- 500 grams coarse yellow cornmeal look for “stone-ground” and/or grits
- 150-200 grams salt use 15-20% salt by weight
- 2 tablespoons Chinese roasted rapeseed oil (caiziyou) enough to cover pan, and then some
- Gather and wash your peppers. Set aside til completely dry. Slice off stems and dice roughly. If using a food processor, pulse in bursts so you don't end up with a mince. Transfer to a large mixing bowl.
- Add the salt and mix. At this point, the peppers will exude some moisture. Let weep for 5-10 minutes (do not drain), then pour in the cornmeal and mix thoroughly.
- Transfer to a clean, airtight container. For jars with questionably airtight 1-piece lids, we lay plastic wrap across the opening and secure with a rubber band before spinning the lid back on. If using a Chinese pickling jar, make sure to keep the moat filled with water throughout the fermentation process.
- Store in a cabinet or other cool, dark place. Let ferment 3 weeks before using, and take care to avoid handling the jar or zhalajiao with oily hands or utensils. Like paocai, oil will cause zhalajiao to spoil. Only cook as much of the pickled chili at a time as you can eat within 3-4 days.
- Preheat a well-seasoned wok or nonstick pan on medium-high heat (if using nonstick, add oil before heating). Add enough caiziyou to cover the bottom and then some. Heat until it just begins smoking to rid the rapeseed oil of its raw odor.
- Pour in 1-2 cups of the mix, depending on pan size. Don't dump in too thick a layer of pickled chilis, or it may have trouble crisping up. Stir-fry about 10 minutes, stirring constantly the first couple minutes to coat mixture evenly with oil, then frequently to avoid sticking. Turn the heat down to medium if needed.
- When you can smell the chili fragrance and see the kernels turning dark orange/gold and translucent, keep a close watch so the crystallized mixture doesn’t turn into scorched crisps. Give it a taste test! You can take it off the heat once it’s begun to crisp up. It will become even crispier as it cools.
- Transfer to an open container once the pan is cool to the touch. If the mixture is still warm when you transfer to a container, the moisture may keep it from crisping up.
- Cover when completely cooled and store at room temperature. Use within 3-4 days. Zhalajiao is an excellent topping for mantou, congee, noodles, plain rice and all kinds of stir-fries. You can also stir-fry pork belly, green beans, potatoes and more with it as an ingredient straight from the pickle jar.
Tried this recipe?