Originally brought to China from the Americas by the Spanish and Portuguese via trade routes in the 15th and 16th centuries, chili peppers are now cultivated in countless varieties across China. Suddenly, Chinese cooks had a new source of spicy heat, in addition to native peppercorns and ginger—fresh and dried chili peppers.
In fact, China is one of the world’s largest harvesters of chilies today, yielding over 30 million tons each year. This accounts for about 46 percent of chili pepper production worldwide. That’s a lot of chilies!
And while a veritable rainbow of chili peppers exists, dried red chili peppers (gān hóng là jiāo, 干红辣椒) are those most frequently used as a spice in Chinese cooking. Just as fiery in flavor as they are in color, dried red chili peppers are a must-have for many of our most loved recipes.
What Are Dried Red Chili Peppers?
There are a vast number of chili pepper cultivars that have been produced through selective breeding to augment their most desirable traits. According to some sources, as many as 2,000 different chili pepper cultivars are grown in China today.
Farmers of chili peppers in China take great pride in their heirloom chili seeds, which are carefully selected from the highest quality plants each year depending on certain characteristics, including color, flavor, and size.
In the West, the most widely known type of Chinese dried chilies may be those cultivated in the northeastern Chinese port city of Tianjin (sometimes written as Tien Tsin).
Also known as “facing heaven” chilies (cháo tiān jiāo, 朝天椒) because they grow pointed skyward, these peppers are usually no more than a 1 or 2 inches in length.
But don’t be fooled by their size. These tiny peppers pack a punch. Usually, the smaller the peppers, the hotter they are.
Other types of Chinese chilies vary slightly in size, flavor, and heat level. One famous variety is the super hot and smoky shuàn shuàn là (涮涮辣) pepper from Yunnan Province. Another is the medium-hot èr jīngtiáo (二荆条) chilies mostly grown in Sichuan Province.
How Are Dried Red Chili Peppers Used?
Dried chili peppers add heat to dishes in various ways. The source of a chili’s heat is the capsaicin in its seeds and membrane.
Breaking open or biting into a chili can result in a painful experience, so they’re sometimes used whole (usually in larger quantities). If a more intense heat is desired, they can be broken open/chopped (much fewer chilies are needed in this case).
We usually use a small amount of chilis to balance out other flavors in a recipe. Add more if you like more heat. Depending on your preference and spice tolerance, chilis may also be removed from a dish before serving.
Typically, we lightly fry dried red chili peppers in a bit of oil in the beginning stages of preparing a dish, often with garlic or other aromatics, like in our take on the quintessentially Chinese-American General Tso’s Chicken.
In our version of the Chinese restaurant classic Orange Chicken, we infuse the cooking oil with a few dried red chilis, dried mandarin orange peels, and star anise for the perfect balance of spicy, citrusy, and fragrant.
We also frequently use dried red chili peppers in combination with Sichuan peppercorns to create the distinctive ma la or “spicy numbing” flavor profile of many classic Sichuan dishes like Kung Pao Chicken or Sichuan Boiled Fish (Shui Zhu Yu).
You’ll see a TON of them in our Chongqing Chicken recipe:
Dried red chili peppers are also a common addition to Hunan recipes. We chop the chilis and remove their seeds before lightly them with garlic for our Spicy Black Bean Twice Cooked Potatoes, a vegan/vegetarian twist on the Hunan classic Twice Cooked Pork.
Chairman Mao’s Red Braised Pork Belly from Hunan Province (the birthplace of Mao Zedong) would not be complete without a few dried chili peppers. (According to Mao, “The food of the true revolutionary is the red pepper, and he who cannot endure red peppers is also unable to fight.”)
Buying & Storing Dried Red Chili Peppers
Most Asian grocery stores carry whole dried red chili peppers. You can also purchase them online.
When buying dried chilis, look for those that are shiny, flexible, and don’t break easily. They should give off an aroma reminiscent of dried fruit when you open the package.
For maximum potency, use dried chili peppers within six months of purchasing. However, they’ll keep for up to a year when stored in an airtight container away from heat, light, and moisture.
You can also grow chili peppers yourself! Check out our Garden/Farm post on how to grow chili peppers. We talk about different Asian pepper varieties you can try, with seed sources! If you don’t have a garden or outdoor space, chili peppers are also suitable for container growing. (As long as you have a very sunny window, because they like light and heat!)
Don’t have easy access to an Asian market to buy Chinese varieties of dried red chili peppers? You can substitute them with dried chile de árbol or whatever small dried chilies you can find.