Chili pastes are one of the best ways to add flavor and complexity to just about any savory dish. The most well-known paste, in the United States at least, is probably Sriracha, which is also affectionately called “hipster ketchup.” However, foodies are missing out if they limit their consumption of chili pastes to just one kind. There are a whole array of pastes that are spicy, sweet, fishy, and fermented. Let’s break it down.
First off, what is chili paste? It’s literally what it sounds like – a paste made from chiles. Sometimes the paste is really thick, more of a pulp than a sauce, while others times it’s been watered down and thinned with other flavored ingredients. The texture depends on what the paste’s function is intended to be. Pastes for marinades tend to be thicker, while dipping-sauce pastes are thinner. Just about every country has its own variation of chili paste.
Chili pastes can be organized into hot, spiced, fishy, sweet, or fermented. Here are some of the most famous:
Hot – Lo Jiao Jiang
This is a Chinese paste made with hot red peppers. It’s most commonly served in cooked dishes, though people who aren’t afraid of heat use it as a condiment, like ketchup.
Spiced – Harissa
Made from ingredients like vinegar, garlic, cumin, coriander, red chili peppers, and lemon, Harissa is famous in North Africa, especially Tunisia. Harissa has been called the national condiment of the country, and Tunisia is its main exporter. The paste is served with everything from seafood to eggs to meat.
Fishy – Shito
Originating from Ghana, this paste includes dried fish or crustaceans, which gives it its distinct flavor. It also has oil, ginger, garlic, and tomatoes. The specific blend depends on the region. The most common dishes for shito include steamed rice, rice and beans, and spring rolls. If you eat at a Chinese restaurant in Ghana, they will serve shito.
Sweet – Ancho chili paste
Because it comes from Mexico, the US’ neighbor, this is a common one to find in the United States. The red peppers in the paste are ancho chiles, which are known for having an almost raisin-like sweetness that lingers behind the initial heat. As a sidebar, sriracha is also considered a “sweet” paste.
Fermented – Gochujang
A Korean chili paste, this one is made from fermented soybeans, glutinous rice powder, and red peppers. It’s a very thick paste and very popular even outside of Korea. To make it the traditional way, the paste ferments for months or even years in a clay pot outside. Because it’s fermented, it’s got both spiciness and sweetness going on. It’s the main condiment in bibimbap, a Korean rice bowl.
There are too many chili pastes to name, and depending on where you like to eat, you’ll see countless variations. If you go to a traditional Thai place, you’ll probably be served nam prik pao, which is a fishy sauce with both sour and sweet notes from shrimp, garlic, and sugar. If you love food like falafel and lamb, you should try s’rug or zhug, a lovely green Yemen chili paste that is a bit fresher than most chili pastes thanks to lots of herbs and parsley, but still very spicy. Chili pastes are a fantastic, pretty affordable way to add a lot of flavor to your food and get a taste of different cultures.