It is an ongoing joke in my family how out of control my father can be when it comes to picking up unusual items at the Asian market (oddly-flavored drinks, chips, crackers, condiments). Where my mother will come home bearing only the items she put on her list when shopping alone, excursions with my father are altogether different. While she goes about picking up the staples, he will visit each aisle looking for new-to-him items that he just has to try. My mother indulges and so their pantry overflows with foods that are seldom, if ever, eaten. When my sisters and other family come to visit my father will remember those forgotten must-have items and display them on the counter expecting us to snap them up. The little ones don’t even wait for him to do this; they know where papa keeps the goodies. Admittedly, some of them end up being winners, but most of the time my mother, my sisters and I only look at each other as if to say, “What in the world made him buy that?”
When my parents moved to their new home few months ago, my youngest sister and I were tasked with the clean-out of the old pantry. While my father busied himself in the garage, instead of packing them up in boxes, we made a joint decision to dump in the trash 90% of his goods, my sister and I looking over our shoulders the entire time afraid that we’d be caught in the act. It’s not as if he would have ever noticed (we did fess up later that day).
I really shouldn’t make fun of my father so much. I’ve recently taken inventory my own pantry and discovered that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. My weakness? Chili sauce. I’m always on the lookout for the next best chili sauce with the right amount of heat and flavor. My go-to for cooking is this sambal oelek that I’ve mentioned here several times. The tabletop condiment that would be the finishing touch to my Asian dishes at home has proven more elusive.
In the end, I never found it at my Asian market; I discovered it at my local Chinese restaurant instead. A humble place, Fortune Restaurant is run by a husband and wife team. Downtown Redwood City has seen a revival of sorts over the last several years, trendy restaurants popping up one after another. Older establishments have closed their doors unable to compete with the new but although I’ve never seen Fortune filled to capacity, it has stood at the same spot for 2o years. They offer Chinese dishes that cater to the American palate but over the years I’ve learned to ask for off-the-menu, authentic Chinese dishes. Whichever style you prefer, the dishes are always prepared simply, without the cloyingly sweet sauces and certainly no grease.
This is the chili sauce that is a fixture on their tables and frankly, it is what has kept me going back. The owners know how much I like it and they’ve been generous to send me home with a container of it in the past. They make it on the premises and when I asked Elaine once how to prepare it, she said, “I don’t cook, my husband makes it, but it’s easy.” Then she went on to describe that he simply cooks the dried chilies in oil and that’s it.
Surely it was more involved than that. I’ve tried the method she’d described in years past but I remember that batch not exciting me at all. There’s got to be more to their sauce that has such depth without overpowering the dishes it’s drizzled on. Garlic, lots of salt even? I wasn’t going to make a pest of myself in case the recipe was a closely-guarded secret. But she did the most wonderful thing recently.
It had been a few months since our last visit and when my husband and I walked in the door that day, Elaine, always with a smile, guided us to our table and excitedly handed to me her iPad, directing me to play a video. As she greeted the other newcomers and took orders from others, I watched the video of her husband preparing a large batch of their chili sauce…and this revealed the key—they add hot bean paste to the chilies.
This was the version I came up with considering I had no verbal instructions for cook time, specific brands to use and quantity of ingredients (he made enough to last a normal household a few years!). I took notes on my phone–there were only a few steps–and guessed on the type of paste to use (if you’ve ever been to an Asian market you know there are countless varieties) but in the end, this ended up tasting just like Fortune’s. I wasn’t sure quite what to call this (is it authentic?)–it’s like a recipe for chili oil enhanced with chili paste. I consider it a sauce because it neither fits in the oil nor paste category. Whatever you call it (if you know the Chinese name, please share), I’ve just freed some precious pantry real estate; my search for the perfect tabletop condiment stops here. And hey, I might even give my father a jar to sample. Thanks to me and my sister he and my mother now have lots of space in their new pantry, too, but I have a feeling this won’t sit forgotten there either.
Update 10/19/2014: We put this sauce on everything. Lately, I’ve been adding garlic to each batch. The garlic slices add another tasty dimension to this already flavorful, versatile, sauce.
Variation: for a garlicky chili sauce, peel and slice a whole head of garlic. After adding the vegetable oil and cooking for two minutes, add the garlic slices and cook for another 2-4 minutes on medium or medium-high heat. Just enough heat to keep the sauce lightly sizzling but not too hot to burn the garlic. Then add the broad bean paste and cook for another 1-2 minutes before turning off the heat. Cool completely before storing in jars.
- 4 ounces (2 bags) Chinese dried red peppers (yields about 1¾ cups crushed red peppers)
- 1¼ cups vegetable oil (if you like more oil feel free to increase this amount)
- 1⅓ cup store-bought broad bean paste
- water for soaking the peppers
- Crush the whole dried red peppers in a food processor; this will take roughly one minute. Transfer the crushed peppers to a large bowl and add enough water to wet all the peppers and soak for 1-3 hours.
- To cook: In a large wok or skillet, add the peppers and some of the water from the bowl. Turn the heat up to high and cook the peppers, stirring occasionally, until the water has cooked down completely. Add the vegetable oil, turn down the heat to medium or medium-high and cook, stirring, for 2-3 minutes. Add the bean paste, stir to combine and turn off the heat.
- Let cool completely before transferring to jars. This will just about fill two standard-sized mason jars.