Although chiles are native to the New World, once they crossed the Pacific, they became wildly popular in Eastern Asian cuisines. In addition to using fresh and dried chiles, East Asian cooks also rely on a variety of prepared chile pastes and sauces to add spicy heat to their dishes. Asian chile pastes and sauces (the distinction between the two having more to do with what their manufacturers choose to call them than with their consistency) are made primarily from ground chiles, oil or vinegar, and salt. They may also include other flavors, such as garlic, ginger, sugar, sesame, black beans, or soybeans. If garlic is added, the product is often identified as “chile paste with garlic” or “chile-garlic paste,” and if soybeans predominate, it’s called “hot bean paste.” Unlike most of the thin, smooth, chile-based hot sauces of the Americas, Asian chile pastes tend to be coarse and on the thick side, full of bits of ground chiles and sometimes whole seeds. Pastes from Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia and Vietnam are typically bottled fresh, while Chinese and Korean pastes are usually fermented first.
Where and what to buy: You’ll find the broadest variety of chile pastes at an Asian grocery store. Be sure the first ingredient listed is chiles. Chile pastes aren’t usually labeled as to their heat intensity, so experiment to find a brand you like. A few of our favorites are Lan Chi brand in glass jars, Szechwan brand in cans (both are Chinese), and Indonesian-style sambal oelek by Huy Fong Foods in plastic jars.
How to use and store: You can spice up anything with chile paste. Add it at the beginning of cooking if you want it to really permeate the dish, or at the end if you want more of a surface heat. Until you’re familiar with the heat level or the brand you’re using, start with a very small amount; you can always add more. Some pastes separate during storage, so stir them before using. Once opened, chile pastes will last indefinitely if tightly covered and refrigerated. Transfer canned paste to a jar before storing because the metal can get unpleasant.