The The Isol(Asian) Cookbook came about when Etta head chef Rosheen Kaul – who formerly worked at Lee Ho Fook and Dinner by Heston – found herself in mandatory isolation after returning to Melbourne from overseas earlier in 2020.

Unable to go food shopping for two weeks, Kaul relied on the pantry items she already had available and a little fresh produce delivered by her sister. She documented every dish she cooked (all her own recipes) over 14 days, before sharing them with a friend, artist Joanna Hu, “who brought them to life with her dreamy illustrations,” Kaul says.

Their 40-page cookbook has six sections: a glossary of Chinese cooking techniques and essential ingredients; basic recipes (think congee and fried rice); snacks; vegetables; and noodle dishes. A condiment section at the back includes Kaul’s “lazy and budget XO sauce” and this aromatic chilli oil recipe.

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“Nine times out of 10, when I’m eating at a Chinese restaurant I’ll ask for chilli oil. Even if the dishes on the table render additional spice completely unnecessary, I’m always curious to try every version I come across because they are so vastly different,” Kaul says.

“For a condiment with so few ingredients, there exist indefinite variations. For purists, hong you, or ‘red oil’, should only contain crushed dried chillies, scalded with boiling oil and left to infuse, creating an astonishingly vibrant colour. There are versions with crispy anchovies, tiny puffs of tofu, fried soybeans and even pork floss.

“For me, chilli oil needs to have plenty of chewy chilli sediment, resulting from a half-and-half approach of cooked fresh chillies and crushed dried chilli. It should be salty as well, and delicious enough to be eaten on its own with hot steamed rice.”

Kaul says it’s of the utmost importance to track down dried Sichuan chillies for this recipe. There are a few varieties available, ranging from moderate to very spicy, and your local Asian grocer will stock at least one of them.

Rosheen Kaul’s chilli oil
Makes 1 medium-sized jar
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 25 minutes, plus overnight infusion

Ingredients and Method

This recipe is divided into three parts for clarity.

Part One
40g dried chillies
1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns
2 tbsp vegetable oil (other neutral, high-smoke point oils – canola, sunflower, soybean, peanut – may be substituted)

Using a pair of sharp scissors, cut the dried chillies into small pieces. Heat the oil and fry the chillies and peppercorns over low heat until they are very fragrant, and the chillies have turned a deep red. Be extremely careful not to burn them.

Allow to cool, and crush in a mortar and pestle. Then transfer into a bowl.

Part Two
10 fresh red chillies
3 cloves garlic
10g ginger
12g salt
10g sugar
3 tbsp of vegetable oil

Blitz chillies, garlic and ginger in a food processor. Warm the oil in a small pan and add the blended chilli, garlic and ginger mixture. Fry on low heat until all of the moisture is cooked out. Allow to cool and stir through the salt and sugar. Add to bowl with crushed dried chillies.

Part Three
300g oil
2 star anise
1 black cardamom
3 slices ginger
1 spring onion

Discard the green top of the spring onion, and cut the white stem into large pieces (do not chop or slice into small pieces as it will cause the spring onion to cook too quickly and burn). Heat the oil in a large pot (ensure it can hold double the volume of the oil, as it will bubble up). Add the spring onion and ginger. Fry until golden, then remove from the oil and discard.

Add the star anise and cardamom to the oil. Fry over a low heat until fragrant.

At this point, the oil should be very hot. Pour half the oil over the bowl with the chilli mixture and stir. Wait five minutes or so for the oil to cool further, then pour the rest over the chillies.

Once fully cooled, remove the star anise and cardamom. Leave covered overnight at room temperature. The next day, the oil should be an intense dark red colour. Pack into an airtight jar and store in a cool place.

There is a limited print release of The Isolasian Cookbook, for $20, out now. Pre-order it here. There is also a digital version, available for $10.