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Chiu Chow chilli oil: The story behind Guangdong’s secret sauce

Chiu Chow chilli oil: the story behind Guangdong’s secret sauce

by Great British Chefs 10 November 2017

Think chilli oil is all the same? Think again. We take a look at Chiu Chow chilli oil – from the province of Guangdong in China – to see what makes this particular condiment special.


Walk into any restaurant in the country these days, and there’s a good chance you’ll find a bottle of chilli oil sitting on the table, ready for you to dip or sprinkle or pour at your leisure. Although chilli oil first arrived on these shores courtesy of Chinese cuisine, it’s become a universally loved condiment, and as a nation, we’ll eat it with absolutely anything.

Not all chilli oils are created equal, though. Your average chilli oil tends to be a simple combination of chilli and oil, with the oil heated up, then poured over dried chilli and left to steep – resulting in that classic scarlet hue – and the dried chilli usually discarded. That’s all well and good if you’re after an extra hit of heat and colour, but if you want something that has a real depth of flavour and plenty of punch, there’s one oil that rises above the rest.

Chiu Chow chilli oil originated in southern China, specifically Chiu Chow (also known as Chaozhou) – a city in east Guangdong. The local cuisine is influenced by both Cantonese food (which is all about getting as much umami flavour out of ingredients as possible and what almost all Chinese food in the UK is based around) and the food of Fujian. Chiu Chow cuisine is often assumed to be the same as Cantonese due to the city’s proximity to Hong Kong, but it’s actually quite unique. Most foods are steamed or braised rather than fried, and the most popular dishes from the region include an oyster omelette and a goose dish made with a lu shui master broth, which is often kept bubbling away in a pot for months at a time. It’s also one of the few parts of China to use fish sauce – something we tend to associate more with places like Vietnam and Thailand.

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Chiu chow chilli oil comes from Guangdong, a region of China famed for its aromatic cuisine
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A specific type of local chilli is used to make the sauce, which is slightly hotter than traditional Guangdong cuisine but milder than the explosive, fiery flavours of Sichuanese food

Overall, the food of Guangdong (also known as Canton in Cantonese) focuses more on fresh flavours, light dishes and that all important umami taste rather than the fiery chillies and numbing peppercorns of northern regions like Sichuan and Hunan. But there are certain oils used for dipping, flavouring soups and as a base for sauces that are the exception to this rule. There’s shacha sauce, which combines chillies, brill and dried shrimp for a deep, very savoury, slightly spicy flavour, and Chiu Chow chilli oil (also known as Chaozhou sauce), which has taken the world by storm.

Chiu Chow chilli oil is quite simple in its preparation, but the resulting flavour is punchy and complex – a perfect combination of chilli and garlic which doesn't overpower and gradually builds in heat. Chillies preserved in salt, a huge amount of chopped garlic and soy sauce are added to a mix of soybean and sesame oil and left to infuse. While many other chilli oils are strained before bottling, producers leave the little bits of chilli and garlic in the jar on purpose, as this is where the most intense flavour and aroma comes from. This effectively gives cooks two ways of using the oil – either as a pure, spicy liquid, or something with a bit more texture and umami-laden chewiness.

In Guangdong the oil is typically served at the table for diners to add to whatever they please, but it’s also used to dress aromatic beef stews, to flavour broths containing all sorts of meats and vegetables and as a dipping sauce for steamed dumplings. It’s popular outside of Guangdong, and in places such as Hong Kong the oil itself is used for stir-frying, while the dregs at the bottom are kept for finishing dishes that benefit from a little kick of spice. Outside of Chinese cuisine, it can be used as a marinade for steaks, spread on a cheese sandwich, stirred through hummus or even as a flavour for ice cream. There are an awful lot of chilli oils in the world, but Chiu Chow is the only one to include an aromatic, chewy, flavourful sediment, which ensures it won’t sit languishing in a cupboard for months on end.

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