how to make chilli oil
There’s a one-way dirt road that leads to a village in Yingshan County, Sichuan. If you follow it up the mountain, you’ll find a house built out of the clay upon which it stands, nestled in an emerald-green forest of bamboo.
That’s where my father’s father—my yeye—was born. He grew up surrounded by chillis and numbing peppercorns, which fostered within him an early love for spicy food, a love he instilled within me as well.
In that home, he learned how to make chilli oil, how to add hot oil into spices without splashing burning droplets everywhere, how to let the mixture cool and separate, then be strained. From Sichuan to Inner Mongolia to Hubei to British Columbia, yeye carried that knowledge with him, eventually sharing it with me before I came to California.
Years later, during my first visit to see yeye after his stroke, he asked me, “小姑娘，你是谁?” Little girl, who are you?
Yeye, who am I? I am your youngest granddaughter. I am the child you took care of in Canada. You gave me my last name. I got my love of erhu music from you. My nose crinkles in the same way that yours does when I laugh.
And so, with those six little words, my world shattered.
I come from a family with no written histories or records. Instead, my past is preserved in story-filled recipes—passed from generation to generation through moments like the lazy Sunday afternoon when I made dumplings with yeye and he decided that we needed something spicy to pair with the subtle richness of the pork-and-Napa-cabbage filling.
So, with those simple words, I lost him. I lost the still untold stories of his childhood, the still unrecounted memories, the still unlived moments with him. I lost the tie I had to that house built out of the clay upon which it stands, nestled in an emerald-green forest of bamboo, to our family’s history. Now, standing in the kitchen, I find myself carefully pouring the boiling hot canola oil into a blend of peppers in the same way that he once had. It sizzles and hisses when it hits the concoction of numbing peppercorns and fiery-red chilli peppers. While the oil quiets and stills, it fills the room with a warm fragrance that tingles my nose and transports me back to the home I’d only ever visited once, long, long ago—a house built out of the clay upon which it stands, nestled in an emerald-green forest of bamboo.
I’ve come to understand the true importance of the knowledge yeye gave me, for those recipes hold more than lists of ingredients. I’ve come to believe that food serves as an otherworldly bridge to rich, vivid memories between people. Seeing the chilli oil cooling on my counter, to be used to season dandan noodles or to flavor homemade pickled garlic, I remember the moments I never knew and rediscover the ties to family that I thought had been lost.
As I’ve grown up in California, food has been the medium through which I’ve made new families and found new communities throughout high school and college. After all, nothing builds bonds quite like trying ghost pepper flavored chips and eating spicy instant ramen together at 1 am.
Food brings people together. During these moments, I’m reminded of my yeye when we made chilli oil together for the first time on that lazy Sunday afternoon because it feels like he’s teaching me how food can heal and connect—transcending language, distance, and time—all over again.
For a girl with no documentation of her ancestry, food is especially important to me. Food is how I remember the stories of my history and honor my family, and how I’ve made new memories and found new communities, too.