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


red chiles

salted chiles

red cooked tofu


Our last trip to Seattle’s International District yielded a number of interesting ingredients, many of which I have yet to try. I did pull out the package of deep fried bean curd last week, and tried out another recipe from – can you guess? – Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook. It was extremely delicious, even though I have a feeling the fried tofu I bought somehow isn’t quite the right kind.

fried tofu

It was in the refrigerator case at Uwajimaya, next to the bean curd sheets. It seemed to be the right product until I opened it, but instead of puffs, the tofu was sort of in layers. It had a way cool chewy texture, though, and nice bean curd-y flavor. We were also really pleased with the sauce, which was completely simple to make and had a surprisingly rich taste, with lots of zing from the ginger and chile. It was rather soupy and made a delicious porridge in the bottom of our rice bowls. I totally want to do this again with the puffy tofu, if I can find it.

Also, this was our first foray into the jar of salted chiles I’ve had fermenting over the last couple of weeks. They were excellent – I’ll tell you more about them soon. You don’t need them for this recipe, though, it actually just calls for fresh hot chile.

red cooked fried tofu

Zhangguying red-braised bean curd puffs

Adapted from Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook by Fuchsia Dunlop

Dunlop mentions that the recipe could be started by stir-frying pork slices in the wok before continuing with the other ingredients. I bet a little ground pork would be excellent here as well. But it makes a great meat-free meal.

  • 2-3 Tbsp lard or peanut oil
  • 9 oz deep fried bean curd puffs (or whatever kind of deep-fried tofu you can find)
  • 3 garlic cloves, sliced
  • 1 inch ginger, sliced
  • 3 cups stock (I used homemade chicken stock)
  • soy sauce (to taste)
  • 1 fresh chile, sliced (I substituted a spoonful of salted chiles)
  • 5 scallions, cut into lengths
  • 1 tsp cornstarch and 2 tsp water

Cut the tofu into bite-size chunks. If it’s very oily, pat it a bit with paper towels.

Heat peanut oil or lard in a wok, add the garlic and ginger and stir-fry briefly, then pour in the stock. Bring to a boil and add some soy sauce and the tofu. Reduce and simmer gently for 5-10 minutes. Add the chile and scallions and cook for just a moment more. Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.

Mix the cornstarch and water in a small bowl, bring the sauce in the wok to a full boil, and swirl in the cornstarch mixture. When the sauce has thickened slightly, remove from the heat and serve with rice or noodles.

vinegar chicken

vinegar chicken

Another recipe from the Hunan cookbook I’ve been working through. It was quite a lot blander than I had expected, with very little vinegar kick – maybe I need a rice vinegar with more oomph? But we’ve been trying to eat lightly during the week and this certainly fit the bill. One nice side product was the broth from poaching the chicken. Part of it went into the final stirfry, but I also used it to cook chard for a side dish, which made for wonderfully flavorful greens. I also froze some of it to use later.

This struck me as a good “gentle” dinner to make when you’re feeling a bit frail.

Dong’an chicken

from The Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook by Fuchsia Dunlop

  • 4 chicken thighs (bone in, skin on) or one small chicken cut into pieces
  • 2 inch piece ginger, cut in half
  • 3 scallions
  • 1 fresh hot chile
  • 3 dried chiles
  • 2 tsp Shaoxing wine or sherry
  • 2 Tbsp rice vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp whole Sichuan pepper  or Sichuan pepper oil
  • salt to taste
  • 1 tsp cornstarch stirred into 2 tsp cold water
  • 1 tsp sesame oil

Bring a quart of water to a boil and add the chicken pieces, half the ginger and one scallion (lightly crushed). Reduce the heat to a simmer and poach 10 minutes. Remove the chicken from the liquid and cool, then shred/cut into long pieces with the grain. It won’t quite be cooked through. You can add the bones and skin back into the poaching liquid to make stock.

Sliver the fresh chile and remaining ginger and scallions. Heat a spoonful of peanut oil, add the fresh and dried chiles, ginger, and Sichuan pepper and cook until fragrant but not burning. Add the chicken and stir-fry, splashing wine around the edges, then add the vinegar, Sichuan pepper oil (if using) and salt. Pour in a half cup or so of the poaching liquid. Bring to a boil, turn down and simmer. Add the cornstarch and scallions, cook briefly to thicken, finish with the sesame oil and serve with rice or noodles.