In recent years an interesting snack seems to be trending all around China: fried “fragrant and crispy” peppers (香脆椒, aka 香辣酥), sometimes translated into English as “fried chile crisp”, or “magic chili”. I don’t recall seeing these in the 90s when I lived in Guangzhou, but it was probably already a thing at least in Sichuan, if not the broader Southwest. Now you can find iterations of this snack at corner stores and groceries all over the country, as well as in the US.
This snack is most commonly available in China in plastic jars like the image to the left. Peppers are cut into little cylinders, packed and tossed with sesame seeds, starch, salt, sugar, (and often MSG), and deep fried and mixed with peanuts.
The example on the left is a Beijing-produced 香辣酥, found at a Chinese shop in Ulaanbaatar a few years ago.
Among rare discussions of this food item online (primarily in Chinese), it seems like this snack ultimately came from Sichuan as a drinking food. Some, like this “history” page by a local Sichuan brand 陈大妈, suspect the food item should date from at least the time of the creation of “governors chicken” (宫保鸡丁). Other discussions hint at the natural evolution as Sichuan is home to some of the best baijiu liquors in China, and hence a need for local drinking foods.
Last summer I noticed this item on the “Chinese only” chalkboard specials menu at Philadelphia’s Xi’an Sizzling Woks. The dish was basically a fried chicken recombined in a hot wok with a generous handful of Huangfeihong “magic chili” (or it is possible they made their own in house). I was with a large group of people, and several ranked it as their favorite dish on the table! I was late to snap a poorly focused image but this may give you some idea:
Earlier this year, our family in Thailand sent us a new food product from Bangkok, Tony’s Kitchen BKK brand “peppers for munching” พริกเบรคแตก. They were really addictive, and the ingredient list was exceedingly simple: peppers, salt, sesame seeds, and sesame oil. Chile skins were curled around sesame seeds. So basic, yet so delicious!
This jar is empty, and I didn’t snap any pics of the chiles before we finished them. Here is a Google image search to give you some idea.
That Thai chile snack looked exactly like a style of snack typical in Yunnan. Here you can find a YouTube video from Xiangcun Yige, a traveler from Hunan to a shop in Yunnan where he documents product preparation：
After tasting some delicious iterations of this snack (with my favorite version above not yet available in the US) I decided to figure out how to make them at home. It turns out the process is remarkably simple.
Recipe: Yunnan-style fragrant and crispy peppers 云南式香脆椒
There are several videos on YouTube showing how to make versions of this snack, though they are focused on the style with starches (sometimes even a batter) and peanuts (i.e. the style that can be best witnessed in the HuangFeiHong example above). As always, I recommend viewing as many versions of a recipe as you can, to get a sense of what the essentials are for any given recipe. This snack was highlighted on the very popular CCTV food show “everyday cuisine” 天天饮食. I’d also highly recommend the just-published video from Magic Ingredients (her videos are always clear and carefully produced). And if you are interested in having a crispy peanut as part of your chile snack, I’d highly recommend the video detailing peanut preparation by 美味小舍. All of those examples are in Chinese, but you can learn a lot by simply watching the process. The powders used are starch, salt, sugar, MSG, and sometimes custard powder is added too (that would be the yellow powder if you are puzzled).
- Select your chiles. Cut or break the chiles in half to discard the seeds. Because the seeds are discarded, this snack is probably not as spicy as you might think it would be. I used the chiles below, imports from China:
2. Soak the chiles in water for 30 minutes. If you watch that Magic Ingredients video above, she soaks in boiling water and then further boils the chile skins before mixing with seasonings in order to remove most of the pungent hotness. I wasn’t worried about that.
3. After the chiles are soft, squeeze the water out. You’ll also likely get rid of more seeds with the draining process. Slice or scissor cut the chile pods lengthwise on the bias to make two long pieces. That cut will ensure the chiles curl when they are fried.
4. Mix together with fine salt, a little bit of sugar, a generous amount of quality sesame seeds, and a little bit of flour or starch of your choice. MSG and other powders (like custard powder) are common additions. In hindsight, I think garlic powder would also be great here. Gently toss the peppers with your seasonings, and you’ll notice the sesame seeds and powders will be attracted to the insides of the chile. That is exactly what you want, basically a sesame seed-packed pod.
5. Deep fry on medium low for about 7 or 8 minutes until the chiles turn golden. Don’t overcook! Strain the chiles and let cool.
Thank you for the recipe! I am in San Francisco and was trying, to no avail, to find these in our china town (I had the thai version not too long ago but there is no way im paying those import prices) so tonight I will try to make my own!
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Hi, I just came across your post after discovering a similar recipe video on Youtube. Until I saw that video I didn’t know what I was looking for! You may want to check it out as well:
The dish you described with chicken is much like what I’ve had at Hao Noodles in NYC, except they use shrimp. The mix is absolutely delicious and I’ve wanted to reproduce it for years, I’ve also looked for the pre-made snack mix equivalent, like this rather expensive import:
I think I’ve got the idea now, but am still unsure of the chilis to use. Like in two of your photos they were fairly wide diameter, and not very hot. I’m not sure if soaking would be enough to tame down the “heaven facing” chilis I’ve been using for Sichuan recipes, so I’m trying to figure out the right choice. You suggest maybe the New Mexico chili… is that an actual type I can find?
Thanks for the recipe and any ideas you have!
Hi Eric, thanks for sharing that video–I hadn’t yet seen that one, and I’m happy to see them using some unique peppers in for this. I agree that $30 is a lot to pay for a snack item. Have you seen the much cheaper Huang Fei Hong brand “Magic Chili” one? That’s fairly regularly available at Philly’s China-focused markets, and is closer to around $5. The chile pepper used in that one is much bigger, I think like a Thai goat chile pepper. We usually use Mexican pasilla in place of that, which are not so hard to find at Mexican markets, and we also regularly use dried Anaheim peppers, which are often labeled as “New Mexico” chiles and can be found most anywhere. I think any of the above would work in that larger pepper preparation. For me though, I love the spicier crunchy peppers, and tend to use facing heaven or regular Tianjin peppers. Chile arbol I think would be too spicy. Here’s another tip… if you have an airfrier that also works well for making these. I’ve done it a few times and was very happy with the results!
Hi David, thanks for the response! I just ordered a bag of Magic Chili from an outfit online, about $6. We have some big Asian supermarkets here so it might be around, but this was easier. I really like those wide peppers for some reason, and I’ve also encountered something similar in cooked dishes at Chinese restaurants, so I appreciate your suggestions. Guess I’ll have to try a few. You find the heaven facing to be okay after soaking? The dried ones I have on hand are downright painful out of the bag. The dish from Hao Noodles also has sprigs of fried rosemary in it (I’m pretty sure) which adds a certain note. I imagine they make it in-house, but I don’t really know. Great restaurant, by the way, really interesting dishes. I hope they are still around when I can go to NY again!
Just a follow-up, the Magic Chili is definitely in the ballpark. Not quite what Hao Noodle makes, but I think that’s mainly for lack of a few ingredients. I’m going to try making it myself now that I have the info!
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Great to hear! The “crispy chiles” I had at Xi’an Sizzling Woks’ fried chicken dish a few years ago was also pretty similar to that Huang Fei Hong “Magic Chili”