A stellar condiment in Asian cuisine, chili garlic sauce has found its way into American kitchens for its versatility and savory heat. Chili and garlic are the prominent flavors of this aptly named sauce, now used in a variety of dishes.
Offering spicy, tangy, and punchy garlic flavors, this sauce can level up your gastronomic experience. Add fierceness to your favorite food by serving it on the side of dim sum, dolloping a bit into piping hot bowls of soup, or lathering some onto burger patties.
Chili garlic sauce is the little red jar that’s in the door of every refrigerator. It’s on the grocery rotation, and when we run out (it’s happened a couple of times), we’ve learned a few ways to adapt. Below we’ll share with you some recommendations on direct alternatives that you can purchase at the grocery, as well as recipes to try to mimic the flavors.
What Makes Up Chili Garlic Sauce?
The uniqueness of chili garlic sauce comes from its heat, texture, and punchy flavor. This sauce is spicy, but the heat level isn’t intense; the heat creeps up slowly and warms the back of the throat.
The texture is thick, with rougher chopped chilis that add great depth. The seeds are visible, too, which adds heat and an aesthetically pleasing change of color.
You get a nice pop of flavor between the chili peppers, garlic, rice vinegar, and salt that form the base of chili garlic sauce. The resulting combination is sweet, tangy, and spicy. It has an almost fresh, and quite robust flavor, with a powerful garlic bite that really sets it apart from other spicy sauces.
There are many differences in the ingredients for making homemade chili garlic sauce. The common denominator remains – chili peppers. A great sauce starts with fresh red peppers, and depending on your spice tolerance, you can mix different types of peppers to achieve the sauce that is ideal for you.
Some homemade varieties have tomatoes or tomato sauce in them. This addition lends nice umami notes and a balance to the heat. Others add honey or other sweeteners to give it a slightly sweeter taste. Soy sauce, oyster sauce, and sesame oil may also be added, to pack the sauce with different umami flavors.
Chili Garlic Sauces Around the World
Scouring the internet trying to locate the origin of this delectable condiment, sources point to either China or Vietnam. While nothing is conclusive, chili garlic sauce variations come in many forms. In China, duo jiao is a pickled chili garlic sauce popular in Hunan province. Home cooks make big batches of this kitchen staple using chili peppers, garlic, and the pickling agent of either lemon or lime juice or white rice vinegar.
Korean fermented red pepper paste or gochujang is a thick, spicy, red-orange paste made from red chili pepper flakes (gochugaru), glutinous rice, salt, and fermented soybeans.
In Vietnamese cuisine, tương ớt, or chili sauce is ubiquitous. Usually made from the main ingredient, chili, it has a spicy, red color that is especially suitable for dips, and grilled and fried dishes.
Indonesia’s sambal oelek provides little heat but intense flavors to dishes. It is a simple seasoning made of crushed, bright red chili peppers, (seeds included), a little vinegar, and salt.
But perhaps the most global recognition of the sauce is Huy Fong chili garlic sauce, which is available online or in specialty Asian groceries. The hot sauce creator, David Tran, is Vietnamese, but this specialty sauce is sold in America.
Chili garlic sauce has been growing more and more present in everyday Western cuisine – chicken, seafood, tofu, and vegetables. New dishes and styles of using this condiment are no longer limited to Asian dishes.
How to Use Chili Garlic Sauce
Spices are indispensable in many cuisines, helping add flavor to otherwise plain dishes. Chili garlic sauce can be used in a variety of Asian dishes and stir-fry sauces, as well as more creative endeavors, like homemade jerky.
The most basic way to use chili garlic sauce is to use it as a condiment to add heat and flavor to your food. It goes great with tacos, rice dishes, and noodles.
Chili garlic sauce as a dipping sauce is popularly served in restaurants with dim sum, potstickers, gyoza, spring rolls, and baos. A dipping sauce of chili garlic mixed with either black vinegar, soy sauce, or lemon juice makes these specialties even more enjoyable.
Some homemade chili garlic recipes also contain tomatoes or tomato sauce, making it a great alternative to ketchup in sandwiches and on burgers.
While chili garlic sauce is best known as a condiment or dip, you can also use it as a marinade for chicken or steak before grilling. Baste it on meat, seafood, and vegetables, and it will lend a glistening glow as well as rich flavors to the entire dish.
Unlock culinary masterpieces, and add great flavor to stir frys or soups. Try a spicy edamame dish or a vegan noodle bowl, or use it to create a glaze to coat chicken or shrimp. It’s a great sauce to have on hand.
7 Best Chili Garlic Sauce Substitutes
Chili garlic sauce is widely used in Asian cuisine, and can be readily found in the Asian section of your local grocery store. But when you’re cooking and you run out of chili garlic sauce, finding a good substitute instead of skipping it altogether may be your best bet. In the unfortunate event that you can’t nab a bottle, there are plenty of options to replace the sauce. Some of them can be found in your pantry, while suitable options may be available at the store.
Sriracha, also known as Rooster sauce, is a versatile Thai spicy sauce that can substitute for chili garlic sauce. It has a good flavor profile with strong garlic tones, making it an uncomplicated sauce that adds zip, zing, and zest to your dish. There’s a nice strong smokey undertone to sriracha that we absolutely love.
Sambal Oelek is similar to chili garlic sauce in that it is made up of chili peppers, vinegar, and garlic. With fierce, pungent flavors, this Indonesian chili paste has a thinner consistency than chili garlic sauce, and doesn’t contain any sugar. Its nuanced flavors come from the few ingredients it is made up of – chili peppers and garlic. Salty flavor greets you at the first bite, and then balances out over time. Use it as a condiment to spice up dim sum, gyoza, and other deep-fried dishes; it adds character and flavor to any dish.
Chili paste is made from ground-dried chilies, spices, and garlic that can be used as a direct replacement for chili garlic sauce. It’s similar in texture, but with a thicker consistency. The flavor varies from hot and spicy to sweet and spicy depending on the types of chili used, and the provenance of the paste. If you’re cooking a dish that needs a chili garlic sauce substitute, start by adding small amounts and adjust accordingly.
You’ll definitely be asking yourself what took you so long to cook with chili paste.
Harissa sauce is a North African condiment made from chili peppers, garlic, olive oil, and some spices. It adds a mild zesty flavor with a strong peppery and garlicky finish, making it a delicious alternative for cooking stews. It can also be used as a marinade for meats and as a dipping sauce. We’re definitely hooked on Harissa!
As a replacement for chili garlic sauce, the sweet, smoky, salty, umami notes of gochujang paste work best when used sparingly. It adds great depth of flavor to stews, soups, marinades, and sauces, and comes in 5 different heat levels. You can use it for dipping or add it directly to recipes for an intense spicy kick.
Chili Garlic Paste
Chili garlic paste is another Asian condiment, distinct from plain chili paste, that can be used to flavor a variety of dishes. We’re adding this to our list because you can easily buy the paste in a tube or make it at home. Simply grind a few chilis and garlic together, then season with your choice of flavoring. You can easily add this concoction when cooking a stir-fry, as a marinade (thin it out with soy sauce), or dipping sauce, and the homemade version will last months in the fridge.
DIY Chili Garlic Sauce
When bottled variants just won’t cut it, you will be pleased to know that chili garlic sauce is quite easy to make. It’s also far superior to what you can buy from the supermarket, as it won’t contain the multitude of preservatives. Just use fresh chili peppers that you can source locally, to keep the costs down and customize the spice level. Wash the peppers and make sure they are blemish-free, then add in your desired ratio of garlic and vinegar.
Food will never be the same when you have this condiment around. Utilize chili garlic sauce in salad dressings, or to make a sweet chili sauce for egg rolls. It’ll liven up any dish by bringing it up to a spice level.