Jihye Chang

Concerning Chili Sauces


(From left: Gochu-jang, Toban Djan, Sriracha Sauce, Thai Sweet Chili Sauce, Taiwanese chili paste with garlic and oil, and Tabasco chili sauce. Bottom: a tube of sweet and sour gochu-jang for cold noodles – in-flight meal, Korean Air, from Seoul to Chicago)

I used to get a bit frustrated and a bit annoyed whenever a recipe called for “chili sauce” or “hot sauce” without explaining or specifying WHAT KIND. And then there is the overwhelming confusion one gets in front of hundreds of red bottles at any Asian grocery store. After reading many cookbooks and cooking a lot with different types of “chili sauces”, I came to understand more about chili sauces in general and now have a few favorite brands and ideas to share. I have had the idea of writing about chili sauces for a long time and finally finished it today. 🙂

1. Korean Chili Sauce

Gochujang – This is more like a chili paste than sauce, made with dried chili powder, rice, fermented soy beans, and salt. Gochujang has thick, almost sticky texture and sweet soy bean flavor along with spiciness that kicks in slowly. This is the sauce that goes on top of Bibimbap, one of my friends’ favorite Korean food. Korean chefs use Gochungjang for all kinds of dishes – stir fried spicy pork (Toeji bulgogi), stir fried squid and octopus (Ojingeo bokkum & Nakji bokkum), all kinds of spicy stews (Zigae), spicy noodles and so on. Also very popular among Koreans (especially the younglings) is tokpokki, which is rice cake sticks, fish cakes, and vegetables simmered in sweet Gochujang sauce. It’s also good with plain rice (short grain rice, not Jasmine or long grain)and a few drops of sesame oil. You can also mix in some minced garlic, rice vinegar, sugar, and a bit of sesame oil to make a delicious sweet and sour sauce for Korean style sashimi rice (“Hoe dup bap”) and spicy and sour somen noodle (“Bibim guksoo”) Soonchang gochujang from Chung Jung Won brand is my favorite.

2. Chinese Chili Bean Sauce

Toban-Djan (Chinese chili bean sauce)- This is the famous Szechuanese chili bean sauce (or chili bean paste) that’s used in Ma-Po tofu, Twice cooked pork, and other Szechuan style dishes. Lee Kum Kee brand is very good and trusted. This sauce is highly salty and has very strong fermented flavor. Stir-frying it in oil makes it more tasty and less smelly. Also you need to add some sugar, soy sauce, or Hoisin sauce to balance the flavor. This is different from Chili garlic sauce, which has more sour taste.

3. Other Asian Chili Sauces

Chili Garlic Sauce – This is coarse textured chili sauce that comes usually in a round plastic container with a green cap, from Huy Fong Foods. (There’s a rooster on the label.) You will see this in a lot of Vietnamese restaurants. It has very pungent and sour taste with lots of saltiness and spicy kick. I love putting it on top of Pho or anything that tastes bland. I prefer not to cook with it as it’s a bit messy.

Sriracha Sauce – More smooth type of chili sauce that has a little tang. This is sold in a tall tube with pointy tip. It’s used sometimes as a garnish on top of spicy tuna or other kinds of spicy sushi rolls. Sriracha has a cleaner taste compared to Sambal Oelek, and can be mixed with mayonnaise. I have only seen and used the Hui Fong Foods brand Srirach Sauce.

Sambal Oelek (Ground fresh chili paste) – This looks very similar to Chili garlic sauce and also comes in similar looking plastic jar, but with a golden label. I have never used it, but Huy Fong explains that it has only chili, not garlic.

Thai Sweet Chili Sauce – This is a really nice chili sauce that’s not too spicy and well balanced with pleasant sweetness. I love the Mae Ploy brand. Thai sweet chili sauce is wonderful as a dip for fresh spring rolls, mixed with a bit of lime juice. Fried chicken wings covered in this sauce are more often spotted in restaurants. About any fried food will go well with this sauce.

4. Chili in oil – Not exactly “sauce,” but still used a lot in Asian cooking. Thai style chili (or chili seeds) in oil is sometimes used as a dipping sauce ingredient and sometimes as a tom-yum ingredient. Mae Ploy and Pantainorasingh are good brands. Japanese Ra-Yu (or La-Yu) comes in a very small container, and it’s great for making spicy mayonnaise along with Shichimi (Japanese 7 spice mixture). I like the S& B brand. Korean food also uses a lot of chili flavored oil, usually sesame chili oil. Haeorum brand makes very flavorful chili sesame oil. Taiwanese chili paste in oil is used mainly as a dipping sauce ingredient for hot-pot.

* Update, 2016 April: I have recently discovered the Chili Crisp in Oil – such yumminess! You can buy “Lao gan ma spicy chili crisp” even on Amazon. It’s great as a flavor enhancement for any dipping sauce (I love dipping my dumplings in a soy sauce and rice vinegar mixture topped with this), or as a condiment over rice.  Taiwanese Bull’s Head BBQ sauce has the look of chili paste in oil, but has more complexity (it contains some fish paste and other seasonings). It’s quite yummy on noodles (especially on Taiwanese Nuro-mien.)

There’s also pickled chili used for Szechuan/Sichuan “fish flavored” dishes, and I have a bottle from my mother in law in the fridge. I will post something when I have enough courage to open it and cook with it..

6. American/Western Chili Sauce -“Hot Sauce”

Chili sauces are often called for Cajun cooking or for Buffalo wing kind of recipes in American cookbooks. Also these sauces are used as base of BBQ sauces. I think Asian chili sauces are more complex in flavor and not always sour while American hot sauces are always vinegar-salt based and often scorching-hot. Tabasco sauce seems to be the most commonly found and used, but I personally like the Cholula Chile sauce with wooden cap and Frank’s hot sauce. (Cholula is great on top of omelet or buritto.) I also like to add a few drops of Tabasco sauce in my tomato meat sauce. My husband loves pouring the Tabasco over his pizza and blister his lips. There are so many kinds and brands of chili/hot sauces with different level of hotness – they will kick your taste buds, numb your tongues, and make you cry!

I once saw a recipe for shrimp cocktail sauce that called for “chili sauce.” I think there is “chili sauce” that is made by Heinz, and my guess is that this is what that recipe needed.

Whoa. I think that’s about it. I am now going to make some spicy tuna rice ball with shichimi, mayonnaise, chili oil, and some sriracha sauce! 🙂

30 Responses to “Concerning Chili Sauces”

  1. Kyo | June 27th, 2010 at 11:24 am

    Thanks so much for your explanation of the different chili sauces. I’m particularly interested in the Thai sweet chili sauce.

  2. Dana | July 3rd, 2010 at 6:52 am

    I’m hoping you can help me with a question about Asian chili sauces. A recipe I want to try called for “chili bean sauce” but I could not find it at the food store so I bought “chili sauce”. Is there a big difference between the two? Thanks!

  3. Jihye Chang | July 3rd, 2010 at 7:21 am

    I am glad this posting was helpful to you! Thai sweet chili sauce is very yummy and versatile. (very sweet, too!)

  4. Jihye Chang | July 3rd, 2010 at 7:24 am

    Hello Dana – usually “chili bean sauce” means the “Toban-jian”, specialty of Szechuan province in China. This sauce has very strong fermented flavor and, of course, a lot of bean flavor. It’s also very salty. Chili bean sauce releases a lot of flavor when cooked in oil. However “Chili sauce” is usually Tabasco type of hot and sour sauce (like Sriracha). Toban-jian flavor is hard to replace, so probably you want to go shopping again..!

  5. P | July 20th, 2010 at 10:34 pm

    I’m making kimchi chigae but apparently i forgot to buy gochujang. Can i use Sriracha instead? Will the taste be similar?

  6. Jihye Chang | July 20th, 2010 at 10:54 pm

    Well, I don’t usually put gochujang on Kimchi chigae. Don’t use Sriracha, and just put some chili pepper powder (gochugaru) and a little bit of sugar, if necessary.

  7. Heidi | January 23rd, 2012 at 8:37 am

    So thankful someone out there can help us poor non-Asians who love Asian food!!
    So, Phad Thai calls for Thai Chilli Sauce. I tried using Thai Sweet Chiili sauce but it didn’t taste right.. probably not spicy enough.. what would you recommend I use instead? I currently live in Egypt so not a ton of variety here.

  8. Jihye Chang | January 23rd, 2012 at 11:15 pm

    Thai sweet chili sauce is great for dipping fresh spring rolls (mix in some lime juice makes t better), and also as a base for chicken wing sauce!

  9. Jihye Chang | January 23rd, 2012 at 11:27 pm

    Hello- i am so glad you found me and find this helpful! 🙂 The recipes I tried or have in my books call for tamarind, fish sauce and vinegar or lime juice..I think sriracha sauce might work as it is not as sweet and it has some sorness to it. I knew a Burmese chef I knew who made her Pad Thai with rice vinegar, sugar (instead of tamarind), fish sauce and spice up with paprika/ cayenne pepper and a few sprinkles of dried pepper flakes. I tried that method and it is quite good! Stir fry some egg and meat/ mix in the pre-soaked noodle and season with above/ top with crushes peanuts and shredded cabbage &carrots/ serve with sliced lime wedges. I hope this helps!

  10. Margaret | May 29th, 2012 at 12:04 pm

    Hi! I just pinned this article to Pintrest!! I have been confused over all the different types and SO HAPPY to run across your break down!
    Margaret Asbell

  11. Jihye Chang | May 30th, 2012 at 6:16 am

    Hello – I am so glad this helped you. I plan to break down soy sauce, fish sauce, and other Asian ingredients. (with some of my favorite brands) I know how overwhelming it is to stand in front of hundreds of bottles of sauces by different brands! Enjoy~ 🙂

  12. sandy | February 12th, 2013 at 3:57 pm

    I’ve been looking for the kind of chili sauce (like Maggi brand) that we used to have back home in Malaysia. It’s similar to ketchup but spicy and smoother. I ended up buying Heinz Chili Sauce thinking they are the same but heck no. Heinz Chili Sauce IS ketchup – it is not spicy at all. So disappointing and felt so cheated by the name. Perhaps I need to look harder at the Asian supermarkets and find the real deal. Your post is interesting by the way!

  13. sandy | February 12th, 2013 at 3:59 pm

    One more thing. The ingredient list doesn’t even contain anything CHILI. Sigh~~~

  14. Jihye Chang | March 14th, 2013 at 9:22 am

    Hi Sandy – sorry for the late reply! I don’t know about the chili sauce used in Malaysia..is it any similar to Sriracha? Anyways, I wouldn’t trust any chili “sauce” made by Heinz. haha. Thanks for your comments.

  15. Jihye Chang | March 14th, 2013 at 9:22 am

    and they name it “chili sauce”?!

  16. michelle | April 4th, 2014 at 3:43 pm

    Do you know how to make the gochujang not stick to the spoon? I bought a container of gochujang from my local supermarket to mix in with my eggs, but every time I scoop some of it out, it sticks to the spoon and I have to get another spoon to pry it off and onto my eggs.

  17. Jihye Chang | April 4th, 2014 at 9:25 pm

    Hello Michelle! The kind of gochujang you get from grocery stores usually contains quite a bit of corn syrup or some kind of sugar substance as well as flour, and it usually sticks to the spoon. The homemade kind (my aunt makes her own gochujang every year!) is not as sticky, but still it has a thick, pasty consistence so you will need another spoon or a fingertip to clean off.

  18. Joseph | July 15th, 2014 at 8:15 am

    I found a recipe on the internet for Asian orange chicken in the crockpot (slow-cooker) which doesn’t take many ingredients but one of the ingredients is the mae ploy (thai sweet chili) sauce which I don’t have on hand and was wondering if chili-garlic sauce would work instead?

  19. Jihye Chang | July 26th, 2014 at 7:30 pm

    Hello- Sorry I just saw this comment..! Mae ploy sweet chili sauce is quite sweet with a bit of tang, not too spicy. Chili garlic sauce, on the other hand, is very garlicky and quite strong in flavor without being sweet. If you mix little bit of chili garlic sauce with sugar and a bit of lemon, maybe that will do the trick. (Chinese recipes often use just soy sauce and oyster sauce, with the help of ginger, garlic, dried chili pepper, green onion sauteed in oil. Orange chicken can be made with same combination with a bit of orange zest and juice!)

  20. Joseph | July 27th, 2014 at 6:37 pm

    Well the recipe I found on the internet for the orange chicken was: 4 – 5 chicken breasts, one 18-oz. jar of orange marmalade, 3/4 cup BBQ sauce, 2 tbsp. soy sauce, and 1/4 cup of the sweet chili sauce. I found a recipe on the internet for making my own sweet chili sauce (about 2 cups of it) though it’s probably got somewhat more kick than the storebought stuff as the recipe called for a whole tbsp. of crushed red pepper. Since I’m subbing in sugar-free ingredients to reduce the sugar I used Truvia packets as the sweetener for the homemade sweet chili sauce.

  21. Linda | August 19th, 2014 at 2:55 pm

    Thank you for the article. I have enjoyed Asian and Asian fusion food for years, but just started cooking it. As you indicate, there are a lot of sauces. Your article is very helpful!

  22. Jihye Chang | August 21st, 2014 at 8:07 pm

    I am so glad it was helpful! I am planning to write more about other sauces..so stay tuned..! 🙂

  23. Pearl | April 24th, 2016 at 6:01 am

    Hi! I was looking for my favorite chili sauce and found your blog. I am elated bec it is included in the picture. You have described it as taiwanese chili paste in garlic & oil. Can you give me its name and brand? Thank you

  24. Jihye Chang | April 24th, 2016 at 8:58 pm

    Hello – this picture is a few years old, and I can’t remember the name or the brand.. it was from my mother in law. If you are looking for chili in oil, try the Lao gan ma (Chinese brand)!

  25. Jennie | September 4th, 2016 at 1:26 am

    Thank for the break down. I am fairly new to cooking
    with Asian chili sauces and have a bald spot from the
    frustrations of recipes not defining what chili
    sauce or paste to use. Personal recipes I have come to love is
    marinating chicken thighs in Sambal and throwing them on the grill for my Ban Mi sandwiches topped with Cole slaw, cucumber, jalapeño , cilantro mayo and Siracusa mayo. I am addicted to them. I have learned Gochu-jang is used to marinate thin slices beef for beef Bulgogi, another favorite I can’t get enough of. Thanks for the post, happy cooking.

  26. Nicole | December 10th, 2016 at 10:00 am

    Thank you for posting this!! I am making Cocktail Meatballs and the recipe call for “chili sauce.” The only kind I know of is in the world food aisle. All of the posters are talking about Heinze and I a little worried, but it turned out great. Sweet, spicy and with an Asian flare!!

  27. Jihye Chang | January 7th, 2017 at 8:58 am

    I just saw this – glad to know my posting helped you!

  28. Jihye Chang | January 7th, 2017 at 9:05 am

    That does sound yummy! Gochujang is better for fatty pork and chicken. Try marinating thin slices of pork (belly is the best, but shoulder will do as well) with ginger juice, minced garlic, little soy sauce, sesame oil, mirin (or mirim from Lotte), black pepper. Then grill or stir fry with some mushroom, green onion and onion. So yummy!

  29. Kimberly Ellis | February 1st, 2017 at 10:03 am

    Hi I came across a recipe for bang bang shrimp which calls for Thai sweet chili sauce. I forgot to bring my shopping list and picked up a bottle of siracha chile sauce instead. Should I use what I bought or go back to the store? It’s a sauce I’m attempting to make for a pasta shrimp dish which also calls for mayonnaise, lime juice, garlic and paprika. Any help or advice would be greatly appreciated.

  30. Jihye Chang | February 1st, 2017 at 11:12 am

    Hi! Sriracha is too different from Thai sweet chili sauce..so I’d go back. When I make my Bang bang shrimp (the one at bonefish), I use Thai sweet chili sauce with some lime juice, mayo, and a bit of srirach for a little kick. If you’re not able to go back to the store, I’d use just a little bit of srirach, add some sugar and corn syrup. (Thai sweet chili sauce is really sweet and gooey, and srirach is more like a liquid chili paste with lots of spiciness and sour flavor) Hope this helps!

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