Hunanese salted chiles (and a very good tofu recipe)

red chiles

red chiles

I haven’t had much experience with curing, souring or fermenting things at home – I tried making preserved lemons once but it didn’t work particularly well – and it’s something I’ve been wanting to learn more about. Hunanese salted chiles, a key ingredient in the cookbook I’ve been working through, sounded like a good way to ease into things – sort of a lazy girl’s kim chee. It’s nothing but chiles and salt, does not need special attention or preserving techniques, and is very good to eat. It ages for two weeks in a cool place – I just stuck the jar on a pantry shelf in my basement, which stays near 55° all winter – then keeps indefinitely in the fridge. Although I can tell our jar of chiles isn’t going to have the opportunity to stick around very long.

salted chiles

It really is a simple recipe. The hardest part by far was actually getting hold of a pound of ripe red chiles in the middle of winter. We had to wait until we made a trip to the produce section of Uwajimaya in Seattle, where they had an excellent selection of what they called “red jalapeños” but most stores just refer to as Fresno chiles. They’re not an extremely spicy pepper but they’re very sweet and fruity, and all these flavors really came out in the preserving process. The final product is actually quite spicy, but also sweet and surprisingly silky in the mouth. I think they’re wonderful – hot, sour, salty and sweet, all in one condiment. This will become a pantry staple for us.

chiles and salt

Hunanese chopped salted chiles

from Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province by Fuchsia Dunlop

  • 1 lb fresh red chiles
  • 1/4 cup salt

Cut off the stem and tip of each chile and coarsely chop them, including the seeds.

Combine the chopped chiles in a bowl with 3 ½ tbsp of the salt, mix well, place in a very clean glass jar and top with the remaining salt. Seal and put in a cool place for a couple of weeks before using, then refrigerate once opened. Will keep for months.

chiles two ways

What to do with the chiles once they’re done? As far as I can tell, anything that you would use either fresh chiles or chile paste for. I used them in place of fresh red chiles when I made red-braised tofu a couple of weeks ago, I threw a spoonful into a bowl of dan dan noodles, and last night I made a Hunanese dish of pork and tofu that really showcased the chiles.

I’ve made this recipe twice so far. The first time I didn’t have the salted chiles so I doubled the chile bean paste (as Dunlop suggests), and I used fresh shiitakes instead of dried. This time I did use dried mushrooms, and was frankly amazed at the flavor they gave to the sauce. I’ll need to keep dried shiitakes on hand from now on. And while the recipe was good with just the chile bean paste, it was worlds better with the salted chiles – more depth, sweetness, heat and just generally tastier. I nearly licked out the wok.

homestyle bean curd with pork

Homestyle Bean Curd

adapted from Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province by Fuchsia Dunlop

  • 2 dried shiitakes
  • 1 block tofu, cut into slices or cubes (whatever type of tofu you like – I only use silken these days)
  • 1 boneless pork loin chop, cut into thin slices
  • 1 tsp Shaoxing wine or sherry
  • 1 Tbsp chile bean paste
  • 1 Tbsp chopped salted chiles
  • 1 Tbsp chopped garlic
  • 1 cup stock
  • 1/4 tsp soy sauce
  • spoonful of cornstarch mixed with two spoonfuls of cold water
  • 3 scallions
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • peanut oil or lard

Soak the mushrooms in hot water 30 minutes. Drain, remove the stems, and thinly slice.

Mix  the sliced pork with Shaoxing wine in a bowl. Set aside.

If you want the tofu to be a bit firmer, fry the slices until golden in a bit of peanut oil or lard. Set aside. I sometimes skip this step if I’m in the mood for soft-textured tofu.

Heat a bit of oil in a wok until very hot. Stir-fry the pork until the pieces separate, add the chile paste and salted chiles and stir well, then the garlic and mushrooms. Pour in the stock and bring to a simmer.

Add the tofu and soy and bring the liquid to a boil. Stir in the cornstarch mixture and cook until it begins to thicken, then add the scallions and sesame oil. Serve with plenty of rice to soak up the sauce.

silken tofu

pork

red chiles

salted chiles

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