March 13th, 2010 by Jihye Chang
(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!