Locally Made Chili Crisp Tops the Charts

Of all the many, many chili crisps we’ve tried, the most complex, delicious and fun to eat is from Occidental.

Chili crisp is more than a condiment, it’s an obsession. A mix of crunchy shallots, garlic, red chiles and oil, this Chinese sauce is good on just about anything.

The point isn’t to burn your face off, but to add a giant plop of sweet, salty, crunchy, zingy umami to everything from ramen and scrambled eggs to ice cream (really).

Over the last few years, it’s gone from an Asian food store specialty to a required addition to the cupboards of chefs and home cooks during the pandemic. To sate the craving, dozens of companies began selling their own versions, including David Chang of Momofuku (Chili Crunch, $13), Sonoma Harvest’s Crunch Onion Kick ($9), Trader Joe’s Chili Crunch ($4.29) and Fly By Jing ($14.99).

The original, however, is Lao Gan Ma, which started the chili crunch trend in the mid-1990s and is considered the gold standard.

Of all the many, many crisps we’ve tried, the most complex, delicious and fun to eat is from Big Spoon Sauce Co. in Occidental. Nathan Bender and Lani Chan own a local media company, Oystercat Productions, and do video, photography and promotional content for wineries. In their off hours, they make a Sichuan chili crisp inspired by their time in China.

Chili crisp from Big Spoon Sauce Co. in Occidental. (Nathan Bender)

“We went through jars ridiculously fast. But we wanted to tailor a product for our own tastes, with an olive-oil base and playing with local stuff,” Bender said.

After making the condiment as a Christmas present for friends and family, testing it with office mates and getting honest feedback, they finally perfected the recipe. It uses roughly 40 ingredients including mushroom powder for umami, peanuts, sugar, cardamom, star anise, fennel seeds and citric acid. All their products are vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free and MSG-free.

As word got out, demand grew and the couple had more requests than they could handle. Having expanded their business to a commercial kitchen at Altamont General Store in Occidental, they now make enough to sell at the Sebastopol Farmers’ market (and coming soon to the Healdsburg and Occidental markets). They also sell to a few local stores including Psychic Pie in Sebastopol and Altamont General Store.

Watch for their new Magic Beans chili crisp with fermented black soybeans. The couple also plan to make an extra-spicy sauce. Find more details at bigspoonsauceco.com or on Instagram @bigspoonsauceco.