How spicy chili crisp can change your life: A pandemic story
A spicy condiment connected me with friends during a year of isolation. Come aboard my chili crisp time machine.
Scott SteinEditor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
ExpertiseVR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tabletsCredentials
Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
How did my yearlong relationship with chili crisp start? I'm not really sure anymore. I think it was some article, a tweet, realizing it was already a trend somewhere. The look of the jar reminded me of something. I knew the taste, the funk. I had it in a Sichuan restaurant before. So things go in the pandemic time: fuzzy memories out of time, stuff absorbed from social feeds. An idea floats up out of the sea of tweets. Sometimes I'm late to discoveries, or right on time.
My love affair began last summer, back when isolation had only been happening for a few months, yet still felt like forever. I ordered three jars of Lao Gan Ma. This company and its condiments had already become a pandemic trend then. I thought I was late. But I also realized I was cooking all the time, ordering everything I needed online and never going to stores, and I had completely avoided restocking my spices. Instead of dreaming of Sichuan food I could no longer eat in restaurants, maybe I could just try having some of the flavors on hand.
That's how I got my jars. I haven't looked back since. What I didn't expect is that it would resonate with my friends, reconnect me with old acquaintances, and provide a spark of kinship that's helped me endure my year away from so many people. Thank you, chili crisp.
Chili crisp is bits of chili and onion fried in oil, more or less. Or garlic. Or Sichuan peppercorns, ideally. Maybe fermented soybeans. Lao Gan Ma's chili crisp has all of that, plus a big dollop of MSG. Monosodium glutamate has become a modernist-cuisine addition now, as opposed to the feared additive it was decades ago. Basically, it's the umami flavor. A funky, addictive part of the taste spectrum. Chili crisp isn't all that spicy. Or even that incredibly salty.
I didn't plan to connect with friends over my chili crisp love. It was going to be my personal lifeboat, my own little comfort. Something to sit on my shelf and remind me of the lost places, like a souvenir of adventures I couldn't take anymore. I tried a small spoonful. Then another.
My first order of Lao Gan Ma chili crisp was on Aug. 9, 2020, according to my Amazon shopping history. I shared my first photo of it on Aug. 14. Why did I share it? I don't know, I was excited. I also took a photo of it next to a jar of everything bagel seasoning, which had been my previous comfort souvenir. Onions, garlic, salt, sesame. Also umami. Umami and umami, side by side.
The first thing I remember putting it in was a bowl of ramen with spam and a fried egg. It was fantastic.
Chili crisp wasn't the first condiment I stocked up on during the pandemic. I bought a jar of sambal before that. Sambal, a tangy chili sauce, has a totally different profile. I specifically bought sambal oelek, which is wonderfully profiled here. I added sambal to fried rice, eggs, all sorts of things. Leftover Chinese takeout. I started using chili crisp the same way.
Things evolved (or devolved) quickly after that. When I realized everything bagel spice and chili crisp were both umami, I thought: Why not chili crisp on bagels, too?
Chili crisp on a bagel, with cream cheese (and raw onion, and maybe everything bagel spice, too) was my new favorite "leave me alone, I'm pandemic-eating" snack.
Also, oatmeal. I've added it to more oatmeal permutations than I can possibly remember. And buckwheat. Barley, everything bagel seasoning and eggs and chili crisp and oats. It worked, really well. The idea's like congee, a Chinese rice porridge. But with other grains. I started getting weird and mixing other umami in, like nutritional yeast.
I also shared some photos on Facebook. This is around the time the relationship with old friends began.
I've never felt comfortable on Facebook. Compared with Twitter, which is a fast-paced, mad feed of strangers trying to stay afloat in currents of information, Facebook always seemed to taunt me with the illusory promise of reuniting with old friends. People I knew at some point, sharing their experiences, giving likes and loves and comments. It always feels like a community I'm almost on the verge of joining.
Facebook hurts because when I share things there -- stories, strange thoughts -- I don't feel like people respond. And those people are supposed to be my friends. Are my friends? Were my friends? They hover adjacently. No likes on Twitter, I don't take it that personally. No likes on Facebook hits harder, no matter how many times I tell myself it's all an algorithmic casino. No matter how much I try to say likes don't matter, they do. So I pull back.
Besides my posting of family pics, I find, like a cruel joke, that Facebook works better when posting about things that just don't matter to me. Or are tangentially absurd. I've started using it like that. Floating stuff out there. So went the chili crisp photos.
Friends liked it. Over time, as I posted more, more people reacted. Especially to my sauce experiments.
Because I loved chili crisp, I kept eating it. What wouldn't it be good on? I haven't tried it on ice cream (which people do, quite a bit), but I've had it in eggs, on chicken, in sandwiches. On bread (bagels, pizza, sourdough, anything).
When Chanukah came, I added it to latkes. It worked, again. Sour cream and chili crisp. I huddled with my family and ate.
When New Year's came, I bought cheap caviar online and mixed the two together. On a bagel. Because, why not -- what matters anymore? No regrets at all.
I tried oatmeal with peanut butter and chili crisp. Oatmeal, peanut butter, chili crisp and Captain Crunch. I told myself I was becoming the David Chang of home snacks. I think I was just having my own little nervous breakdown.
Along the way, I made friends. Or rekindled friendships. I found it weird how many people I knew who started becoming chili crisp-curious. Or looking for my advice on which chili crisp to get, or what to use it on. I regularly post articles on VR headsets, watches, iPads, games ... but what they really cared about were my thoughts on chili crisp. People started buying jars and trying my suggestions. A little chili crisp club was starting to emerge.
I started buying other chili crisps. I got one made by Momofuku and started putting that on pizza and breakfast tacos.
Did I play into the Facebook algorithm that rewarded me for my chili crisp photos? Did I post more because people seemed to care? Probably. Did the algorithms guide my chili crisp life? Perhaps. I still have friends asking how the chili crisp experiments are going. I tell them about varieties I've tried.
For Valentine's Day, my wife bought me chili crisp T-shirts. A friend asked me if I wanted to do a chili crisp podcast. Now, a year into the pandemic, still at home, surrounded by snow, I look at the new jars I've ordered and think to myself… how did I get here?
I've let chili crisp carry me down the road. It's given me happiness and somehow become part of my identity. I still think it's a fantastic condiment. I'm just really confused about my journey here.
My 3 go-to chili crisp combinations
If you're not familiar with chili crisp, I can offer some suggestions of ones I've tried below. You should get at least one jar from somewhere. Other good lists of suggestions: read this, and this.
Lao Gan Ma: The Guizhou, China-based company is considered the iconic chili crisp. If you get one, get this. Lao Gan Ma makes a variety of condiments: fried chilis in oil, chili oil with black beans. I've only tried the spicy chili crisp, and it's wonderful. The most addictive and all-around useful one I've tried, and it's the gold standard. Flavors: funky, tingly, oniony, a bit salty, sensation of fermented soy.
Momofuku Chili Crunch: David Chang's online shop, Peachy Keen, sells batches of this chili crisp-like mix. It's made with Mexican chilies, crispy onions and garlic, and coconut sugar. I've gotten really into it, and the flavor profile is completely different. The crunchy onions remind me of everything bagel spice, and the spice level is higher than Lao Gan Ma, with more chilies. The coconut sweetness is beautiful. I use it everywhere, especially eggs and sandwiches.
Fly by Jing Sichuan Chili Crisp: My wife bought me a surprise gift box of sauces and chilies from Fly by Jing, which has amazing chilies and spice rubs. Their chili crisp is very different, and to me less universally applicable. I taste five-spice and black beans when I eat it, and it's less crunchy, more saucy. But I've started finding myself appreciating its complexity. It feels particularly good with pork and other meats.