How to Use Chili Sauce in Asian and Western Cooking

Hot Chilli Sauce on garden table

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Chili sauce is a condiment that adds spice and flavor to anything from Asian recipes to Western favorites. It can be used as a wonderful dip for finger foods of all kinds or a side sauce to add more spice to food. It provides more of a kick than adding just salt and pepper. Use it as a handy cooking ingredient or as a good substitution for fresh chili. In most Asian countries as well as in Mexico and Central America, no table setting is complete without a bottle or jar of spicy chili sauce.

Ingredients in Chili Sauce and How It's Made

Depending on what kind of chili sauce you buy or decide to make, the ingredients vary, but not widely. Mexican chili sauce is usually made with red or green Mexican hot chilies (often they are dried first), which are simmered in a base of vinegar; sometimes tomatoes are added. Louisiana sauce is made of aged red or green chilies simmered with vinegar and salt or sugar. Asian chili sauces are usually made with Asian hot red chilies; Thai bird's eye chilies are popular. Usually, the chilies are roasted first, then blended to form a paste that is then simmered with fried shallots and garlic, shrimp paste, sugar, and fish sauce or soy sauce. The oil-based chili pastes are made in a similar way, but with soybean, palm, or other oils added.

Types of Chili Sauce

In North America, there are various types of chili sauce available, including the most famous ones: Mexican, Tabasco Sauce, and Louisiana Hot Sauce. Asian-style chili sauces can be slightly easier on the stomach because most are made without vinegar. (The vinegar-chili combination of chili sauces like Tabasco can stir up heartburn if you're not used to the potency.)

There are numerous types of Asian chili sauces, including oil-based chili paste, chili-garlic sauce, classic Thai Sriracha chili sauce (available at most grocery stores in North America) and the famous Thai Nam Prik Pao chili sauce. Another popular one is Indonesian Sambal Oelek. It comes in a plastic jar and you can often find it in the Asian section of grocery stores.

Thai cuisine also has a wonderful sweet chili sauce, which makes an excellent dip for spring rolls, egg rolls, chicken wings, and other finger foods. Just pour out and start dipping. This chili sauce also works well as a side sauce for roasted or fried chicken and makes a fabulous marinade as well as a dip.

How to Cook with Chili Sauce

Generally speaking, if a recipe calls for fresh minced red chilies and you don't have any in the house, substitute a teaspoon of Thai chili sauce in place of one red chili. These chili sauces can also be made into spicy stir-fry sauces. Experiment by adding soy sauce or fish sauce, a little sugar, and some chicken or vegetable stock; otherwise, it will be too spicy. To tame the spice, try mixing chili sauce with mayonnaise or sour cream. This can produce a milder dip that is tasty spread on burgers, sandwiches, or with cut-up veggies.