Gettin' Chilli Wit It
Updated: Nov 23, 2020
Na na na na na naaa. Ok, only those who lived through the 90s will get this dated Will Smith reference. If you didn't find that amusing, please sit still and let Will erase your memory.
Ah, chilli oil, why do you make food taste so darn good? My love affair with you began when I was a mere youngling, and my father asked me to try putting a dollop of you on my spoon when I had roast duck rice.
A wave of rich, spicy umami complemented the mild game of the duck to my surprise, creating a satisfying pairing that still sticks with me till this day. And then a bold idea occurred. What if I started using chilli oil with other dishes? This notion was, of course, influenced by my observation of how my parents enjoyed Chinese food, and soon my curiosity would take flight.
Noodles were an obvious choice – Hakka-style stewed ginger duck yee mee, chee cheong fun, Cantonese dry beef kway teow, and Hong Kong-style wonton mee were all winners. So too, was Yangzhou fried rice and the parade of dumplings and rolls I happily devoured on a Sunday morning dim sum family feast. I've even tried chilli oil on toast.
Yet, while I wholeheartedly enjoy the burst of flavours a beautifully balanced chilli oil can bring to the table, there are just some dishes that do not need that much pow. Yes, there are times when restraint provides better enjoyment than an all-out assault of the senses.
Only good chilli oil adds more to a dish rather than detract from it. For example, my regular dim sum place (Oriental Pavilion at Jaya 33) makes a deliciously balanced prawn chilli oil that goes swimmingly with everything on the menu. On the other end of the scale, Din Tai Fung's heinous and sand-like chilli oil comes to mind. I find its grainy texture repulsive and its flavour rather one dimensional and lacklustre, adding nothing to either the noodles, pork chop fried rice or dumplings that I frequently order.
In the end, it's all subjective.
Over the years, my use of chilli oil would eventually fade into my culinary subconscious as a staple condiment whenever I have Chinese food and see it on the table. My personal rule: whenever I see chilli oil served I'll give it a try. I mean, the restaurant put it there for a reason, so the chef must think it goes well with the food on some level.
It wasn't until recently that I began to think about just how much this humble condiment meant to me when Asian Food Network chef and entrepreneur Ili Sulaiman wanted to send me two jars of her latest creation – chilli oil. Perfect timing for a discussion I reckoned!
Two Palates, One Verdict
I’ve always enjoyed talking about food with Ili, ever since I met her back in 2014 when she and another talented chef named Basira Yeusuff ran a restaurant under the Agak Agak social initiative of the same name at APW, Bangsar.
Ili’s bubbly personality and infectious enthusiasm about food immediately rang true with me, given that I too shared the same sentiments.
For the unconverted, know that there's plenty that chilli oil can bring to the table. Trust me on this.
"The umami-ness of the prawn or ikan bilis, the smokiness of the garlic and shallot, and the heat from the chilli and the subtle richness of a good quality oil can elevate anything you eat with it," says Ili on her own homemade chilli oil, available in two variants. "I love that it brings your food to another level."
Those who dislike spicy foods should understand that when it comes to chilli oil it's rarely the spicy factor that makes it a success but rather the various elements which Ili just mentioned that makes it so darn good. Just a dab can open up the appetite but true chilli oil fiends, however, go for far more than just a dab. I have friends who ask for their own personal chilli oil saucer during meals or even bring their own favourite chilli oil when dining out. Talk about dedication.
For the better part of my life, chilli oil has been reserved for Chinese food. With that being said, leave it to a chef to illuminate me on the versatility of this Asian treasure.
Raised by one grandmother of Fuzhou descent and another of Malay heritage, Ili's tastebuds have formed a unique appreciation of both cuisines. "With my mama, we would have loh mai kai or yam cake with chilli oil. I remember my grandmother and grandaunts having a HUGE jar of chilli oil in all of their houses! They kept in the kitchen cabinet and at every meal, a huge scoop of this delicious condiment would be placed on the dining table," she explains. "Sometimes I would see her add this in her stir fry veggie for a quick lunch meal or mix it in a beef rib stew that’s been cooking for hours with Chinese herbs, spices, and lobak."
"With my nenek, on the other hand, we would have a version of sambal ikan bilis that was almost like chilli oil. It was slightly sweet and smokey, and my grandmother would serve this when she cooked mee kari, soto, or mee goreng basah. I would always be the one to help her peel the head and remove the bones of the ikan bilis and my aunts would all gather in the kitchen to deseed dried chilli to make her sambal," says Ili. "The whole household had to chip in to make this and the process took hours to make. It is these fundamental cooking steps that I have taken to ensure the quality of my chilli oil live up to hers."
TC: What are your two favourite ways to enjoy chilli oil?
IS: I would say the prawn version suits Chinese foods like dim sum, roast duck, and wanton mee, while the ikan bilis fits Malay dishes like nasi goreng. It can also be used as an ayam goreng marinate and it can even substitute sambal in nasi lemak if one is tight for time or doesn’t know how to make nasi lemak sambal. Another way to enjoy it is to use it in curries or soups. I add some of my chilli oil when I am making paste for my curries, either coconut-based (masak lemak, chicken curry) or asam-based curries (asam pedas, fish curry), as it adds a whole level of depth.
TC: Why do you think Malaysians love chilli oil? What do you believe to be so Malaysian about it?
IS: It has a very nostalgic flavour. It's familiar, it’s delicious, and it makes sense.
TC: Most Malaysians enjoy chilli oil with local cuisine. Would you say chilli oil can be used outside of local food?
IS: Why not?! In our household, we eat it with everything. This includes pizza, mixing it in salad dressings, and also aioli. It can also be added into pasta sauces and be used for slow-roasted lamb.
TC: Chilli oil is a very flavourful condiment. What would you say are the advantages and disadvantages of having chilli oil with food?
IS: The advantage is that elevates your food. The disadvantage is that you always end up finishing it too fast and wanting more. Hahaha, jokes! Ok, maybe the drawback is that it’s a pretty complex condiment so it might overpower some dishes with subtle flavours.
Ili starting selling her homemade chilli oil on 25 June this year. A 230g jar costs RM30 or RM70 for the gift box set which includes both the prawn and ikan bilis variants. Her chilli oil has a one-year shelf life without the need of refrigeration, is free of preservatives, colouring, and MSG, and also doesn't contain any gluten, dairy, and soy.