“Red Hot Kitchen” delivers a DIY hot sauce for every taste, from subtle kick to scorching burn

A survey of the Asian hot sauce tradition


Manny Howard
February 9, 2019 10:30PM (UTC)

Diana Kuan set up her most recent book “Red Hot Kitchen” in the most sensible way. The book is about Asian hot sauces so each section leads with the recipe for a sauce—sriracha, Thai red curry paste or Sichuan chili oil for instance—and then fills in behind these with recipes with the condiment at its core. Sriracha gets you Sriracha lime chili wings, Shanghai hot sauce noodles and spice miso ramen, among others.

Some of the sauces are the kind you can pour out of a bottle, others are pastes, the one that caught my eye right away was a relatively recent arrival on the hot sauce scene, XO sauce. More of a spoonable, crumbly condiment, XO, named for the cognac associated with outrageous luxury in 1980s Hong Kong restaurants where it originated, is an outlier in Cantonese cuisine, not known for its fiery dishes.

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There are easier sauces to make in the Salon “test kitchen,” and alternatives were offered, but I was hell-bent on learning how to make this bright and peppery, yet deeply umami foundation for everything from noodles to crispy whole fish or even grilled cheese. Watch our how-to make XO sauce video, but before you do, check out our "Salon Talks" episode below, where we talk all things hot sauce

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This is a fantastic book, organized around hot sauces, that then are part of the dishes that follow it up. Can you talk to us about how you set the book up, and why you wanted to write it?

I wanted to write this book because I knew that there were a lot of hot sauce books out there, but there weren't any that were focused on Asia specifically. More and more these days, people are being introduced to all these different types of cuisines from around Asia, and they're getting a lot more into bold flavors, especially spicy sauces.

I wanted to write a book that broke down each sauce. I chose nine different ones from around Asia that were very versatile, and that could be used as both a condiment and a cooking ingredient. It's not meant to be like an encyclopedia of all the different hot sauces from around Asia, but focused on just nine essential ones. In each chapter, I started with how to make the sauce at home, and then I included about 10 to 12 different recipes per chapter on what you could do with the sauce after you make it.

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We're gonna make XO sauce later on, which is a very luxurious sauce that can be used across a bunch of different dishes, but it's a spicy sauce, for a cuisine, Hong Kong, that isn't really about super spicy food. It's a great example of a hot sauce that you wouldn't expect to see in a book about hot sauces, right?

Yes, XO sauce is probably one of the newest ones. It's only about 30 or 40 years old. It kind of started in Hong Kong in the '90s. Chefs would just make this sauce that would be , kind of range from medium to very spicy, but mostly on the medium side. Because as you said before, Cantonese cuisine is not a cuisine that's known for spicy food. It's usually a lot of ingredients that are very fresh, and they do a minimal amount of oil, a minimal amount of flavorings, just to highlight the freshness of the food.

With this sauce, the XO is meant to connote something that's kind of luxurious. The ingredients in it, the dried scallops and the shrimp, and traditionally they use Jinhua ham. All these ingredients are a little bit on the pricier side of what you would normally expect to be using for a hot sauce, but as soon as you make the hot sauce and you make a lot of it, you don't need any other flavorings for whatever you're making, or not that much flavoring. So, that's why it's such a good thing to have on hand.

 XO sauce connotes luxury because it's named after the cognac, right?

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Yes, it's named after a type of brandy, or the word for brandy.

It's fascinating that it's made of luxury ingredients, so this must be restaurant sauce, right, not a home sauce?

It is mostly a restaurant sauce, but now these days you can buy XO sauce in stores that kind of range in quality. There's small artisanal suppliers in Hong Kong that would make them with all different types of flavorings. They would make vegan ones, they would make porcini mushroom ones, even like mangosteen flavored ones

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Home cooks can buy these in stores, and then just make their dishes at home with these store-bought sauces. But for the most part, they started out as restaurant sauces.

And there are examples in here of sauces that started in the kitchen, right? What's a good example of one of those?

A good example of one of those, I think would be Szechuan chili oil. Despite the name, it is something that is used as a sauce, as both a condiment and a cooking ingredient. That is something that started long before restaurants were a thing in China. Home cooks would make it and just keep it around. It is pretty shelf-stable. So, you would just slather it on anything.

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Right. If you keep it right, you can keep it for a year. Right?

Yeah.

The whole book is useful, but one of the things I really love about it is the chili index that you have. A lot of cookbooks have this rundown of chilis, and where they are on the Scoville scale. Is that what it's called, the Scoville scale?

Yes

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You make some great points about there being much more precise ways of measuring heat, which I'd love you to talk about. But there's also details as you describe each pepper, that I hadn't seen before, so I found it particularly useful. Can we have one from the mildest chilis, sort of touching on the high points as we move to the really hot, the Bird's Eye, I guess?

So the milder chilis would be your Anaheim chilis, your Fresnos, your jalapeños. Those are the ones that are widely available in the U.S. I actually tailored all the chilis to ones that are easily found in the U.S.. There may be more traditional ones that are used in Asia, but in terms of the practicality for American cooks, it would be a lot easier to use the ones that are easily found in the U.S. So the Anaheims, the Fresnos, and the jalapeños would be on the milder side.

If you want to go up a notch, there would be like serrano, cayenne peppers. The prik chee fah chilis, which are Thai chilis that are now widely available in the U.S.

Those the very small and green?

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They're about this long, and they are usually sold in Asian markets as just chili peppers. Sometimes they're mislabeled as Bird's Eye chilis, but Bird's Eye chilis are like this big, and they are way, way, way spicier.

Like sort of fancy fingernail length, right?

Yeah, exactly. I mean, the name for it kind of comes from like bird dropping chilis. I think that's what they're supposed to be called.

You gotta tell me about that.

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The medium-spicy ones would also include the habanese chilis. There's also Tianjin chilis. They're on the medium to hot range.

And that's a commonly available Asian chili, right?

Yeah, they're commonly available, but they are also kind of generically labeled. They'll be labeled either just dried red chili peppers. Yeah, mostly just dried red chili peppers. Like, you'll almost never see them labeled very precisely, unless you go through a specialty spice importer.

But those you can easily find dried in Chinese markets or Southeast Asian markets. And then, to the complete opposite end of the spectrum from the mild, you have the Bird's Eye chilis, which are very, very, very spicy, and they're primarily used in Thai cooking. A little bit in Indonesian cooking, too.

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How much hotter are they than like a habanero or a Szechuan?

They are a tiny bit hotter than a habanero.

Was it difficult to find the equivalents, the American market equivalents of the Asian peppers ?

You kind of just go by the type of heat it has, and then also, a little bit on the flavor profile, too. So, if the recipe calls for a smoky chili, you wouldn't want to substitute it with a fruitier chili. You kind of have to go by not only the heat, but what the flavor is like, too.

Right, right. One of the details from the index that I've found fascinating, and I might be the last person who knows this, but I appreciate the information, if I am the last person, is that chipotle peppers are actually just jalapeños that have been dried and smoked.

Exactly. I think a lot of people think that chipotle peppers are its own species, but no.

I did!

They're just jalapeños.

You use those in this book for which recipe, the chipotle?

You can actually use that as a substitute for any of the dried chilis, but you'll have to keep in mind that they will be a little bit smokier. One of the ones that I suggest as a substitute is for Korean Gochu chilis and Gochujang. Korean Gochu chilis are easily found in Korean markets, but if you don't have access to Korean markets, you can take a little bit of chipotle, grind it up, and then add a little bit of cayenne, which is not as smoky.

Right, so you actually, you're creating the pepper out of two available peppers.

Yes

That's a great help, I think, for people who are trying to put it together. In terms of the range, the nine recipes that you've got in here for sauces, is there a difference between the kinds of sauce? There are wet sauces and dry sauces. When do you use them?

Yeah, there's definitely ones that are a little bit on the wetter side, definitely ones that are a little bit on the chunkier, pastier side, which is gonna be the XO, when we make it. The XO would be on the chunkier side. Thai red curry paste would be on the chunkier side, and the Korean Gochujang would be a little bit more of a thick paste. It's more of a smooth, thick paste. But we have like sriracha. Sambal would be a little bit on the wetter side, and the Szechuan chili oil would definitely be on the ... I guess not wet, but kind of oilier side.

Those middle sauces, you can just put on anything. Right?

Yes, the idea is that any of these sauces could be just put on noodles or rice. But then you also have a bunch of recipes, if you want to get a little bit more involved and cook with them.

Besides writing cookbooks, you also teach classes. What are the range of the classes?

I teach a lot of different classes. I try to do hands-on things in every single class. One of the most popular ones I teach are dumpling classes. I do them twice a month at the Brooklyn Brainery. Then we also do Szechuan cooking. We also do sushi-making. What else? Like Thai cooking, Korean cooking with Gochujang. I've noticed that people really, really respond to the ones that have really bold flavors and really spicy sauces.

Were there questions in the class as you were teaching them, that informed the way that you wrote this book when you wrote it?

Mostly people asking for things to be spicier. And then at the same time you have, in the same class, people asking for things to be toned down a bit. That's why I added the option of, like, "This is how you customize a sauce." You know, a five, to one person, would not be the same as a five to somebody else.

When I first started writing the book, I had the idea of rating the sauces by spiciness, and rating the dishes by spiciness levels, but the feedback I got was just all over the place. Like, somebody thought a dish would be too spicy. Another person would find the same dish to be not spicy at all. So that's why I was like, "Oh, these are ways you can customize the sauces."

Right, right. And so, driving people away with a preconceived notion of what the sauce is gonna be like. You're coaching people throughout the book about taking control of the spiciness, and understanding the spiciness.

Exactly, yeah.

Which is another element of this book. Sort of a very thoughtful way of approaching spiciness. Because it is a very subjective, which is hard when you're at a restaurant and you ask for food, and they ask you if you want it spicy, and then it never comes spicy enough, in your case.

That's also why it's better to make your own at home, rather than buy them in a store. Because you can always change the spiciness level.

It's a great book also, because it moves through cuisines. Did you find that one of the cuisines used spice differently?

For cuisines like Thai or Indonesian, they would definitely have a million different ways to even make one kind of sauce. They would also, a lot of times serve them on the side, or just put over boiled vegetables or lightly cooked things. 

So, very simple dishes, and the sauce is really...

More of a condiment, yeah. Even though you can add it to a lot of different dishes.

Right.

And then, in Chinese cuisines and in Korean and Japanese, they would be more cooked into the food. Even though Yuzu Kosho a lot of times can be a topping for noodles.

And what's that sauce?

Yuzu Kosho is a sauce that is from Japan. It's also unusual in that it is a hot sauce from a cuisine that's not known for having spicy food. But in Japan, it's made with yuzu fruit, which is kind of like a cross between Meyer lemons and lime.

People might know it from the leaf, right?

Yeah, it's not that spicy, though. And in the US, you can't really get yuzu fruit, so I suggest that you make it with either a cross between, like a mixture of Meyer lemons and limes, or you can buy bottled yuzu juice to make it. And then, there's a green pepper in Japan that you can't really get here, but jalapeños are a very good substitute for it. It comes out like a yellowish-green color.

Like the jalapeno, which is red when it's ripe and green before it's ripe, it has different qualities. Is that true with the Japanese pepper?

Yes, you can get red Yuzu Kosha, or more often, you can get kinds that are yellowish-green in color Yeah. The red Yuzu Kosha would be a little bit fruitier.

All the cuisines use the peppers in that sort of ripe to dried variety, right?

More so with the ripe ones. A lot of times when you're making hot sauce, you want to use ripe peppers more, because they tend to be fruitier, and the little bit of sugar would help kind of balance out the spice and the heat. So, if you were using peppers that aren't as ripe, they would come out a little bit, maybe on the slightly bitter side, or slightly on the blander side.

Right, right. So the range is similar to Mexican use of chilis, where the green sauces are very fruity, and then the dried ones and the smoked ones are much earthier and much richer. Right? 

The ones that are in Asian cooking tend to be a little bit on the fruitier side.

And there's no smoked pepper thing that Mexican cuisine leans on?

The smoking comes when you actually cook with the pepper. For example in Szechuan cuisine, when you're making the chili oil, you would actually add the crushed red chilis to the oil. You would add it to the hot oil, so it would kind of smoke as the chilis are going into the hot oil. But in order to get extra smokiness, then you would actually fry up whole dried chilis, when you're cooking a dish like Kung Pao Chicken.

Right, because it has to get the skins going. That's where the smoke comes from, is the skins. Right? And is that it for smoky, like Szechuan?

It's not limited, but it is used the most in Szechuan food. There's like Hunan cuisine, that uses a lot of chilis, but they tend to use fresh chilis in their cooking. 

Can you talk to me about Szechuan peppers, which aren't actually peppers, really? What's going on?

Szechuan pepper is actually a dried berry. It's not the same as a black peppercorn or anything. It's a completely different species, and it comes from Western China, near Tibet. It's just mostly in Szechuan cuisine, but it's also used in a little bit of Tibetan and Nepalese cooking, too. It's not the same sort of in your face spiciness that you get from chili peppers. But it has this tingly numbing sensation, and also a very floral, citrus-y aroma. So, it's not used by itself in a dish, in a spicy dish, but it's paired with fresh chilis, dried chilis, chili oil, chili sauce.

It's like a supporting character. It has this numbing, tingly sensation. If you were to eat a whole spoonful of Szechuan pepper, it might have a mild, like, Novocaine effect, but anyone who's ever had Szechuan food will say it's completely addictive after the first one or two tries.

The sauce, as you write it in the book, is built first, and then you add it to dishes, oftentimes with more chilis, or garlic, or other pungent, flavorful ingredients. Is there something about the Szechuan pepper that works with the ingredients?

I think for Szechuan peppers, you might be able to taste the chilis a little bit more. I feel it's kind of like salt, a little bit. Like if you add salt to a dish, you taste the other flavors a little bit more. I think if you add a little bit of Szechuan pepper, you can taste the full range of the flavors of the chili sauce a little bit more, even though it is kind of numbing your tongue a little.

 And the numbing isn't actually numb. It's not physically numbing the taste buds.

It's not physically numbing. It's just like this sensation, almost like a Pop Rocks sensation.

Diana, so we've talked about all the peppers in the whole book, and I just want to turn to some of the recipes and how you use them. The Thai recipes jumps at me. It's a red curry. How do you put that together? And once you've built the sauce, how do you use it in dishes?

For the Thai red curry paste, if want to roll up your sleeves and just exercise your arm muscles a bit, you can pound everything in a mortar pestle, the garlic, the chilis, some lemongrass. You just get in there and make a really, really thick paste, similar in texture to the XO sauce that we're gonna make.

If you don't want to do that, you can also just put everything in a food processor. And you get this really nice, chunky paste that you can add to noodle soups, or you can add it to curries. One of my favorite things to make with it is just a stir fry, with chicken and green beans. So, just very, very simple dishes that you can make, with this chili paste that can sit in your fridge for a while.

That's what's great about the recipes in the book, is that once you've made the sauce, you can come home on a Wednesday and put something very simple together, and add the sauce to it, and really you're done.  The XO sauce that we're gonna make is pretty evolved, but it's a fantastic sauce that you can have and use on all kinds of things. Is there a simple sauce that you can really throw together on that Wednesday night, and then incorporate it into a meal very quickly?

Oh, definitely. The Szechuan chili oil, you can put together very, very easily. You don't need that many ingredients. You just need chilis, you just need some aromatics, like star anise. You pretty much just heat up the oil, which takes a few minutes, and then put all the flavorings in and kind of just let it sit. And then, all the oil gets infused with all these lovely aromas, in addition to the chilis, and then you can just pretty much use it immediately. It's shelf-stable, and you can put it in your stir fries, you can put it on your noodle soups.

Right. And once you've got the Szechuan peppercorns, really the other ingredients are cinnamon, star anise, bay leaf? Right?

Yes and those ingredients are really, really easy to find.

Hungry now? Learn how to make my favorite hot sauce by watching Diana Kuan's XO sauce tutorial.


Manny Howard

Manny Howard is executive producer of Salon, and the author of "My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard into A Farm." @mannyhoward

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