The burlap sack is big enough for a grown man’s body. It bulges with the weight of a hundred kilos of shallots, but there is a problem. These aren’t the shallots I had ordered, the round ones that easily peel back to reveal a purple-hued flesh. These are a different variety, with smaller elongated sections clustered tightly in a bulb, each piece ranging in size from half a pinky to a thumb. The color and even the taste are the same, but these shallots are threatening to ruin my life.
Two workers hack fruitlessly at the tight layers of skin around each tiny onion with blunt cleavers. Seeing my puzzlement, one of them offers, “We call these 火葱 huocong. They grow in the countryside around here.” Huocong means “fire onion.” They do resemble little flames, and so does my current state of mind. The sack of onions seems to grow larger with every passing minute. We are going to be here a while.
I found myself here after a long and winding search for a factory to mass-produce a chilli sauce I’d been making out of my kitchen in Shanghai. This facility on the outskirts of Chengdu, which specializes in doubanjiang (fermented bean paste) and hot pot seasoning, is one of the very few that will entertain my limited run size. They have also assured me they can export to the US.
With its decade-long experience co-packing sauces, the factory should be guiding me through scaled production. But my process is so unlike anything they’ve ever done, they are deferring to me to instruct them. That was the first mistake.
Fried shallots are a key ingredient in my chilli sauce. I had asked the factory to order 小红葱 xiao hong cong (literally “small red onions”), a popular aromatic in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Little did I know that in mainland China, shallots are more commonly known as 鬼子葱 guizi cong, or “devil” onions, a term reserved for foreign invaders. Nor did I realize that in Sichuan, they take the form of their cousin, “fire onions,” which is what the factory had ordered. Most of these workers had never even seen them before.
Now, as I stand beside an improbably large sack of fire onions, desperation washes over me. I should have bought them already peeled – or better yet, already processed and fried. But now I have no choice but to join in the peeling. Two hours later, we have barely made a dent. Reinforcements are called in from other departments. Three more hours go by. Now everyone’s clocking overtime on a Friday night and the initial jovial chatter draws to a standstill. By the time the last peeled shallot goes in the pile, it has taken seven people more than eight hours to accomplish this one task. Delirious, fingers raw, legs numb, reeking of shallots and despondency, I swear never to lay eyes on them again.
That night, I sleep for a few hours at a shitty hotel they put me in near the factory. Tomorrow we’ll take all the raw materials we prepped today and finally 炒酱 chaojiang, make the actual sauce. I’m nervous.
What made me think I could ever pull this off?
When I first came up with the idea to make and sell my own chilli sauce, I couldn’t have imagined where it would lead me.
I’ve always loved spicy food, and like a true Sichuan local, I added chilli sauce to everything. I found Chinese chilli sauces more complex and savory than their Western counterparts, which tended to be too acidic. I also knew they had a bad rap: Laoganma sauces were often exposed for allegedly having carcinogens in their products, and every sauce on the market tends to have generous doses of MSG and artificial preservatives.
I have no problem with MSG. It’s simply a synthetic derivation of a natural compound. But calling it the essence of flavor would be a stretch; it’s just a flavor booster. Adding a few MSG crystals to a dish can’t mask poor-quality ingredients. On the other hand, if people didn’t demand that Chinese food be dirt-cheap, perhaps manufacturers wouldn’t resort to flavor shortcuts and artificial preservatives to extend shelf life.
I started making my own chilli sauce from scratch, not just for myself but for the Sichuan dinners I cooked in my private kitchen in Shanghai and at pop-up dining events all over the world. I used chillies from Sichuan known for their fragrance, mountain-grown peppercorns that were exclusively given as a tribute to the emperor from the Han dynasty onwards, organic cold-pressed rapeseed oil, and small-batch fermented black beans. I also added crunchy aromatics like golden fried garlic and shallots to my sauce, more of an influence from southern China, whereas the texture was inspired by Laoganma’s crispy, dry chilli condiment, which hails from Guizhou province. I bottled my one-sauce fusion of regional Chinese food cultures, distributing it to friends and selling at markets and my events.
The sauce’s popularity prompted me to reflect on my mission to bring Sichuan flavors to the world and to dispel the stereotype of Sichuan food as nothing more than spicy and numbing. Sauces were the most scalable and consistent way to do that, but I had no idea where to start.
I began by buying all the chilli sauces I could find in local grocery stores. In China, it’s mandatory for food producers to print the address and phone number of their manufacturing facility on the packaging. Bingo. I called several companies in Sichuan and arranged visits.
Sichuan province boasts hundreds of factories that produce chilli sauces and condiments. Some employed armies of sales people that couldn’t answer a single technical question. Others weren’t remotely interested in talking to me once they determined I did not own a chain of hot pot restaurants. The market in China is large enough without them having to go through the annoyance of export paperwork and FDA hurdles. This is why nothing good that’s made in China ever makes its way to the West.
At first I didn’t know what questions to ask. I just tried my best not to reveal that I knew nothing about the industry. I told factories I represented a business in the US looking to source potentially huge orders of sauce from them. After an amusing day with one factory boss who sold me on not his sauce-manufacturing capability but matchmaking prowess, I began speaking to them in Mandarin instead of Sichuan dialect because I felt it provided a layer of distance, making me less familiar and harder to place.
After several fruitless factory visits, I was eventually introduced to Boss Li through a chef friend. She and her husband ran a doubanjiang factory together, but it seemed like she ran him too. Boss Li had short, spiky, electric red hair that was visible a mile away, and could often be seen marching across the grounds in her high-heeled boots with her husband trailing behind. They kept two large Rottweilers in a cage at the entrance to the factory that barked menacingly at every visitor. She told me, gloating, that they got started by poaching a 70-year-old fermentation expert from the most famous doubanjiang factory in town, along with a handwritten notebook of all his secrets.
On my first visit, we spent most of the time eating hot pot in a special banquet room they had built on the top floor of the factory for VIP customers. An enormous round table filled the room, each place setting with a built-in electric stove for individual pots, and a gigantic lazy susan with plates of raw ingredients orbiting an extravagant floral centerpiece.
There were five other clients present: restaurateurs from other parts of China, a young man who introduced himself as 花椒公子, the “Sichuan pepper prince” (a play on 花花公子, which means “playboy”), and a Japanese businessman. The Japanese have been wild for Sichuanese food ever since the the renowned chef Chen Kenmin introduced the cuisine to Tokyo in the 1950s. Aged doubanjiang, a key ingredient in the cuisine, became a hot commodity, and the Japanese are still some of the biggest clients of the sauce factories in Sichuan.
As was typical with these dinners, there was no shortage of baijiu, the potent Chinese grain alcohol. The Sichuan pepper prince and Boss Li’s husband took turns going around the table toasting all the guests as if we were at a wedding. The toasts got progressively sloppier. A few shots in, a warm haze descended over me. I wondered if they snuck some opium in the broth to help smooth things over. (Until it was outlawed in recent years, some hot pot restaurants used to put poppy seed husks into their broth as an extra “seasoning” to keep its guests coming back.)
Boss Li seemed very interested in my connection to the West. I think she saw me as an agent who could sell her products for her abroad. She assured me everything I needed could be done. Still, I left the dinner unsure whether I had accomplished anything.
A few weeks later, gearing up for production, I reached out to Boss Li. Sounding surprised that I was actually serious, she backtracked. “Hold on a minute, what type of bottle are you using? Glass? Oh no, we don’t have the machinery to fill glass bottles, only plastic.”
Plastic was less than ideal, but I considered the energy savings of transporting plastic versus glass, and thought it might not be the worst decision. I scoured Alibaba for PET containers and sent her a few I was happy with. Only then did she tell me, “Make sure it can take 50°C heat.” None of these bottles qualified. A few more days passed before I found a bottle that could withstand high heat processing.
Boss Li then asked, “How big is the mouth of the jar? Our machines only seal jars with diameters of 9.8cm, 11.2cm, and 13.7cm.”
I stopped to consider the buffoonery of buying a machine that only seals such esoteric bottle sizes. But what did I know? Exasperated, I began my search anew. This time, not even Alibaba could help. No one had jars this size, and if I could afford to make a custom mold for my first run, I wouldn’t be in this predicament in the first place.
To get to the root of it, I asked Boss Li to let me talk to the factory manager in charge of packaging. “Take me through the steps of exactly what happens when a bottle is sealed,” I told her.
“We put the aluminum seal in the lid,” she began. “We place the lid on the bottle, and the bottle goes through the machine. But our aluminum seals are 9.8cm, 11.2cm, and 13.7cm, so your bottles have to fit exactly for it not to leak.”
I stopped her. “Wait – those measurements are the sizes of your seals?” Those round aluminum disks that cost pennies to make, and come included inside the lid of most bottles?
She thought for a second and then replied brightly, “Oh yeah, if your bottle comes with its own seal, then that works too.”
I wanted to strangle her through the phone.
All that palaver had led me to this moment, back at the factory on the second day of production, feeling cautiously optimistic. The ingredients had been prepared the day before, including the accursed fire onions, and we were ready to make the sauce. A worker poured several gallons of rapeseed oil into a giant cauldron, while another turned the heat up to 175°C as I instructed. We combined the rest of the ingredients – the chillis, spices, and aromatics – into an even larger container and wheeled it over to the cauldron. The oil had to be poured over the chillies at the precise temperature for the optimal fragrance, color, and flavor to release.
When the temperature crept to 175°C, a mechanical lever lifted the cauldron and the oil began to flow. It hit the ingredients with a sizzle and a cloud of chillies filled the room and our lungs. Things were looking good. Then, quickly, the chillies started turning dark. I sniffed the air, concerned. They were burning. “But how can that be?” I interrogated the worker. “The temperature was correct!”
“Actually,” he said sheepishly, “that temperature gauge is off by a few degrees. We were just estimating. But I’m sure it’s fine,” he quickly offered. “They don’t look that burnt.”
I considered in that moment whether I should just jump in the cauldron myself.
When the oil and smoke settled, the workers turned the chillies with large shovels as I assessed the damage. It wasn’t altogether burnt, but there were unmistakable patches of black in the sea of red. It took everything I had not to lose it in the middle of the factory floor. I took a few deep breaths and said, “OK, let’s see how it turns out,” though I already knew what the outcome would be. The workers insisted it was going to be fine. “Just wait, once we blend it, you won’t be able to tell at all!”
It became clear to me then why most of these factories preferred to continue making their own doubanjiang and hot pot seasonings the same way they have been for decades, rather than take on new formulas. Imprecision is an asset in the kitchen in China, where chefs have relied for generations on intuition and experience in cooking. But the slightest miscalculation can be deadly in manufacturing. It takes time, experience, and exactitude to develop new and consistent practices. Those virtues simply weren’t a priority for a doubanjiang factory founded on a notebook of stolen secrets.
As I predicted, blending and bottling the sauce couldn’t hide the burnt taste. And just like that, my first production run went up in flames.
Enough time has passed that I can look back on that day and laugh about my journey. For what felt like an eternity, I hit one stumbling block over another, until I found myself at rock bottom, which is what reckoning with half a ton of charred chilli sauce feels like.
By experiencing the limitations of the factories and the people who operate them, I learned where I could streamline my processes and where I simply wasn’t going to compromise. Quality of ingredients, precision in temperature, timing, and flavor were nonnegotiable, while certain operations, like deep-frying shallots, can and should be outsourced to professionals.
I later found that, contrary to Boss Li’s insistence that she could export my sauces to the US, her factory did not actually have the necessary FDA documentation, and relied instead on backdoor guanxi (connections, also known as bribes) to pass through customs. This did not come as a surprise.
It took another six months before I finally found the right factory to work with. It’s a pristine facility whose owners, both biochemists and food scientists, don’t take precision lightly. Their stringent standards for quality and food safety go far beyond what is required by the industry, as reflected in their heavy investment in infrastructure, the several successful batches we’ve produced together, and the total competency of every employee I’ve worked with so far. There are no Rottweilers guarding the front gate, and the CEO’s only flex is a brand-new Tesla parked outside.
I wish I had found them in the beginning. And then I remember Laozi’s age-old proverb, a saying whose meaning had often been lost on me, but which suddenly hit home with great power: 千里之行, 始於足下. A journey of a thousand miles starts with just one step.
There really is no fast-forward button to mastery – behind every step forward may be a couple steps backward – but slowly, it is earned.
To celebrate Jenny’s Sichuan Chili Crisp Kickstarter launch, The Cleaver Quarterly partnered with Fly By Jing to offer a killer giveaway to one lucky US winner: two bottles of the brand new sauce, and one carbon steel cleaver handmade by a Chengdu metalsmith.
Enter the draw by taking the following actions before Jul 4: (1) Follow @flybyjing and @thecleaverquarterly on Instagram. (2) Tag a friend in the comment section of this post. (3) Sign up for Fly By Jing email updates and subscribe to The Cleaver Occasionally email newsletter.
Jenny Gao is the founder of Fly By Jing, a celebration of the vibrant street food culture of Sichuan, brought to life through a line of all-natural food products and pop up dining experiences around the world. To preorder the first jars of Sichuan Chili Crisp available outside China, visit Fly By Jing's Kickstarter campaign.