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Why Chili Oil is the Perfect Asian Condiment [History + Recipe]

chili oil header

Asian cuisine has a ton of condiments, toppings, and ingredients that crossed over into mainstream global cuisine in a big way. One of the most versatile and useful of those condiments is chili oil. This delicious and aromatic oil can instantly upgrade any standard meal (we know it adds even more flavor to delicious immi ramen)!

The fact is, condiments like chili oil are just too diverse and interesting to not go into detail about, at least for us! We love how it not only adds some mild spice and pungence to a dish, but also improves the aroma by a mile. That’s why we decided to go in-depth about chili oil and discuss what makes it the perfect Asian condiment. 

What is chili oil?

Simply put, chili oil is any cooking oil that’s been infused with a chili and/or herb mixture to add flavor and aroma to it.

Starting out in China, the condiment grew in popularity all over East Asia over several years, right before being adopted into the global food craze like many other Asian dishes and ingredients. 

The standard preparation involves heating oil to a certain degree and then pouring it over lots of chili flakes. The mixture is then allowed to cool off and infuse over time.

what is chili oil

Once ready, the oil is shaken up and poured over dumplings, rice, fish, salads, and of course, ramen. 

The classic version of chili oil which consists of just chili pepper and oil is what defines the condiment, really. That said, some modern versions that have additional flavor and texture adds are all interesting in their own right. 

There are also many versions of chili oil from many different Asian countries and regions. What they all have in common is the basic ingredients and the preparation method. 

While there are some versions that don’t even heat the oil before letting the spice infuse into it, the heated version is the most popular both commercially and in homes. 

History and origins of chili oil

A lot of the condiments and sauces we experience in Asian cuisine originate from China. 

Chili oil is no different. What separates chili oil from the rest of the condiments is the version that came over and how it evolved over time. 

The Chinese name for chili oil is là jiāo yóu, which roughly translates to “hili pepper oil”. 

The Ming Dynasty is known for the culinary innovation that it brought along, with traders bringing in spices and new species into the Chinese mainland. When the chili pepper was first brought over by Latin American traders, the invention of chili oil quickly followed. 

During the Ming dynasty, chili was stored in oil to preserve them for when they were out of season. This method proved more successful than others, since the original rapeseed oil that was used maintained the fragrance, flavor, and freshness of the chili pepper for a long time. 

When people first noted the taste of the actual oil that the chili peppers were preserved in, they had discovered an amazing new way to preserve spices. 

Over time, people began to make chili oil that more closely resembles the modern version, with finer crushed chili flakes instead of whole chilies. 

How did chili oil become so popular

While it’s not certain why all of a sudden everyone is using chili oil in so many dishes, the overall popularity of chili oil can be attributed to the popularity of Asian cuisine worldwide. 

As more and more Asian cultural influences became known around the world, so did Asian food and the philosophy behind it. 

Unlike most food in the West, Asian food is less about how to cook to get the final result and more about the individual ingredients used to achieve that result. This is why you’ll find a few basic methods of cooking being used to cook such a huge variety of dishes. 

Asian food is also vibrant and has bold flavors, thanks to both the spices used but also the individual tastes of the people who make them. Chili oil is no different as it captures the love for subtle heat that a lot of Asian recipes from the East Asian region have. 

However, in our opinion, chili oil really became famous due to the very subdued and slow-release spice it contains, as well as how it gives an instant Asian tinge to any recipe it’s used in. 

That versatility is a big part of why chili oil is so popular. Literally you could use it on anything, from steaks to spaghetti to even pizza and bread! 

What creates the flavor of chili oil

The answer to this may seem obvious but actually, the classic taste of chili oil is due to more factors than just the chili and the oil. 

First of all, of course, it’s the type of chili pepper used. 

Most chili oil varieties that you can find in the convenience store or Asian market have the standard red chili pepper. It’s a pepper with a distinctly deep flavor that you can only explore once you either cook it in something or soak it for a long time till the thin inner flesh is soft. 

That deep, savory, and almost mildly fruity flavor grows and concentrates once the chili has been dried. Afterwards, to make the chili oil the peppers have to be crushed. This releases even more heat due to the seeds being broken and crushed. 

When hot oil is poured over the crushed chili, it immediately starts to moisten the pepper bits, releasing their heat into the oil. 

Oil (like most other fats) is a great flavor-carry. This means that it easily takes on the flavor of whatever you cook in it. For example, if you cook a garlic stir-fry, any oil that’s left over carries a deep aroma of whatever the ingredients of the dish were. 

Another example is the excess oil that’s left in many Indian dishes. All that oil is sometimes used to flavor other dishes, while in some regions there are dishes that use the oil from pickled vegetables to flavor dishes. 

Since the oil is not taken up to a temperature high enough to burn the chilies, it just cooks them long enough for them to release the flavor. The best part is, the mixture is then left to infuse for an extended period of time, imparting even more flavor and aroma. 

Modern versions of the condiment use different varieties of peppers. An example of this is Sichuan pepper oil, which is made by pouring hot oil over crushed sichuan peppercorns. This version imparts the trademark numbing properties in the oil, meaning that it is spicy but you can taste the flavor even more because of the tingling sensation. 

Why makes chili oil so great?

Of course, the million dollar question is what really makes it so versatile and delicious! The answer to that is threefold.

Chili oil is:

  • The ideal consistency to serve as both a sauce and an ingredient in a larger dish. Even if you get a version of chili oil with larger pepper chunks, you can still spoon some over as a sauce, albeit a chunky one! Plus, the consistency makes it the perfect addition to several staple Asian foods such as rice, noodles, vegetable stir fries etc.
  • Not too spicy to where you can’t taste any of the other condiments and not too mild to where you can’t taste it at all. Most commonly available versions of chili oil will have a subdued spice level. Of course you’ll find some crazy ones with extra hot peppers in them but for the most part, it’s easy to eat.
  • It transforms the aroma of a dish completely, giving it that classic “Asian food” smell! Oil has a unique quality in that it may not have a smell to start with but it takes on the aroma of whatever it’s infused with, just as it does with flavor. Considering how long chili is infused with it, you’ll be able to smell the delicious pepper flavor even before you take the first bite. 

Aside from those things, it’s great for lubricating the mouth, allowing you to chew and swallow food much more easily. If you’re eating a salad or anything with some roughage, it’ll help it go down a lot easier. 

Which dishes does chili oil go great with?

In our opinion, this delicious condiment goes great with just about any recipe that benefits from a last minute flavor add on top. 

However, we have managed to narrow it down to 5 basic dish types that chili oil works really well with. 

which foods chili oil

These are:

Ramen: Needless to say, ramen is our favorite food to have with chili oil. In fact, we have come to use it almost every time we’re having some delicious immi ramen. The best part about having it on ramen is that the chili adds just the right amount of kick to an otherwise primarily savory ramen, and the oil brings the aroma to the next level. Plus, it doesn’t take away from the natural flavors of ramen. 

Rice: White rice is not the most flavorful thing, let’s be honest! This is why chili oil serves as the perfect topping to add both flavor and some interesting texture. Plus, you have many different versions of the condiment, many of which have crispy onions and garlic. This adds several different flavor layers, making it so that you don’t really need any extra seasonings for the rice. 

Stir-fry: Most stir-frys have a ton of flavor on their own. However, it never hurts to substitute some of the ingredients for more flavorful versions. In this example, you can substitute some of the frying oil for chili oil and fry the meat and vegetables in them. You can also go the topping route and add the oil only as a topping for extra spice in each bite. 

Meat: Grilled or fried meat can always benefit from some extra seasoning before and after the cooking process. In this case, you can use chili oil to marinate the meat, or as a topping to drizzle over any meat-based dish such as steak or burnt ends, or even carne asada. You can also add the oil to roast chicken meals as both a basting oil and a topping. It goes really well with otherwise dry pieces of chicken. 

Salad: Salad is traditionally had with an oil-based dressing and chili oil works perfectly in this case. Depending on the type of salad, you can create a chili oil vinaigrette or even just toss the whole thing in twice the amount of oil you’d use as a topping. One thing to note is that if you’re using the original recipe of chili oil, you may need to add extra seasoning since that version is simply chili peppers and oil. 

In terms of which flavor of immi ramen it goes great with, we have to say the Spicy “Beef” flavored immi ramen and the brand new Roasted “Pork” Tonkotsu flavored immi ramen take the cake! 

That’s not to say that Black Garlic “Chicken” flavored immi ramen, or any of the other flavors don’t go that well with chili oil, because they feel like the natural vessels for this delicious condiment as well!

How many types of chili oil are there?

Over the years, people have created so many versions of the condiment that we don’t know for sure how many individual types there are. 

However, we do know about the following main ones:

Classic chili oil, as mentioned earlier, is the ideal combination of chili and sizzling oil in just the right amounts to make par-cooked chili flakes and an oily sauce to go along with them. 

Garlic chili oil is another popular version that introduces crispy garlic bits into the chili mix. These add to the pungence of the aroma and flavor, while also adding an earthiness that just chilies can’t compete with. 

Sichuan chili oil is made with crushed Sichuan peppercorns that are treated the same way as the classic version. The only difference between the regular version and this is that it doesn’t have the same spice factor. However, it more than makes up for that with the mild tingling sensation and very slight sweetness that you get with sichuan peppercorns. 

Chili garlic crisp is technically not a chili oil but a crispy garlic condiment with plenty of chili in it. Think of it as the ratio of chili to oil skewed in favor of the solids, with a ton of garlic added. It’s super delicious and we love to have it with all sorts of dishes. However, we would separate it from authentic chili oil specifically because the garlic is the star of this mix. 

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chili oil recipe

Chili Oil Recipe

  • Author: Kevin Lee


This delicious recipe is a mix between the classic and modern versions of chili oil. 



Cup and a half of rapeseed oil or canola oil

2 tbsp crushed sichuan peppercorn

¾ cup crushed red chili flakes

3 crushed garlic cloves

½ teaspoon salt


  • Put the oil in a pot and add all the ingredients except the chili flakes
  • Set the heat to a medium low and bring down to low once the oil gets up to 200 degrees fahrenheit 
  • Maintain that temperature and cook the aromatics for up to one hour
  • Put the chili flakes in a bowl and strain the hot oil over them
  • Allow to sizzle and stir to let the heated oil spread across the flakes
  • Once the mixture has cooled down a little but is still fairly hot, add the salt and stir well
  • Let the oil sit and infuse for at least 24 to 48 hours before serving