Occidental couple’s recipe for chili crisp sauce has a devoted fan base

At the height of the pandemic, Lani Chan and Nate Bender moved to Sonoma County, where they’ve planted roots with their Big Spoon Sauce Co.|

At the height of the pandemic, Lani Chan and Nate Bender packed their truck with their belongings, their cats and a dozen citrus trees and moved home, to California.

It’s probably safe to say that during that trek from Brooklyn, New York, they didn’t envision themselves spending every Tuesday in a rented kitchen space in Occidental’s Altamont General Store, making their own brand of chili crisp.

But in the past couple years, the pair, who also run their own video and photo production studio, have developed a devoted following for their take on the condiment that has its origins in Sichuan cuisine and has become a fixture on tables across China, along with soy sauce and black vinegar, the way ketchup or hot sauce is here.

For those unfamiliar with chili crisp, a few whiffs of Bender frying shallots while Chan pours a complex blend of spices into a large bowl, readying it for a rendezvous with the sizzling-hot shallot oil, will entice you to make Big Spoon Sauce Co.’s acquaintance.

Layers of flavor

Bender grew up in a winemaking family in the Sierra Foothills, which is also where he got the seeds for those well-traveled citrus trees.

He took a winemaker’s approach to recipe development, looking for complexity of flavor with an emphasis on texture.

Their original chili crisp is crunchy and nutty with a mild, tingling heat from Sichuan peppercorns. In addition to peanuts and roasted garlic, they layer in smoky and sweet flavors with four varieties of dried ground chiles. Although the sauce has a mild kick, it’s not the type of heat that leaves you gasping for water.

“It wasn’t until my mom was eating it straight out of the jar with a spoon that we got the name ‘Big Spoon,’” Bender said. “My dad likes to dip bread in it like it’s a bougie olive oil.”

They also make two other versions of the crisp. Dragon’s Booty is a spicier, habanero-laced version of the original, with citrus zest added, and Magic Beans is a mellow umami-rich blend made with fermented soybeans, a nod to Chan’s Cantonese heritage.

While all three sauces are delicious for dressing a plate of dumplings or adding to steamed whole fish for next week’s Lunar New Year celebrations, the pair find the possibilities for their sauces are nearly endless.

They’re a constant companion to steamy bowls of jook, a rice porridge the couple often eats for breakfast. A friend from the farmers’ market drizzles it on savory oatmeal.

“It’s the same vibe,” Chan said. “It’s so good on porridges because it adds crunch and bite to something that’s soft.”

The sauces play well with tacos, pasta and avocado toast. Some even use it to top ice cream.

“We’ve discovered grilled cheese sandwiches work insanely well with it,” Bender said.

Chan agreed.

“I’ve never eaten so many grilled cheese sandwiches in my life,” she said.

They even did a pop-up at Psychic Pie in Sebastopol with their sauces, proving their worth as a pizza topping, too.

Origins of an obsession

“People often assume that I’m the reason that we do this, because at the market I’m visibly Chinese and Nate is not,” said Chan, who grew up in San Rafael.

Quite the opposite is true.

After they met in Columbia Journalism School’s documentary film program and hit it off, they spent much of their dating life bouncing among New York City’s boroughs, chasing dishes Bender discovered while living and traveling throughout China for the better part of his 20s. The tingling, numbing heat of Sichuan cuisine was a particular favorite of his.

“I’ve always been keen on spicy,” Bender said. “I grew up in a house where spicy challenges were pretty normal because my dad grew chiles. (If there was one) he didn’t know what to do with, he’d just make it a challenge.”

“People I’d never met before slid into my personal DMs and asked me to change my day job.” Lani Chan, co-founder, Big Spoon Sauce Co.

They never intended to start a company when they began making chili crisp at home in New York for fun.

“I think we were just obsessed with it and wanted to have a house recipe,” Chan said.

“So much of this was meant to supply our own addiction,” Bender added.

They initially gifted test batches to friends and family. But in early 2021, as hate crimes against Asian Americans dominated headlines, Chan and Bender were horrified and desperate to do something.

Chan posted on Instagram that they were selling jars of their chili crisp as a fundraiser for organizations that support the Asian American Pacific Islander community. They expected to sell just to family and friends, but total strangers who saw the post ordered, too. In less than two weeks, they had raised $1,500.

It wasn’t long before some of those customers wanted to reorder.

“People I’d never met before slid into my personal DMs (direct messages) and asked me to change my day job,” Chan said, laughing.

They didn’t quit their day jobs. But they did get more serious about their business model, branding and securing kitchen space where they made enough sauce to attend their first farmers’ market on Halloween that same year.

“I think we sold like 10 jars,” Chan recalled. “It wasn’t very much, but Nate and I were so exhilarated because we love the farmers’ market. It’s somewhere we feel comfortable.”

They now sell their sauces year-round at the Sebastopol Farmers’ Market and during the seasonal Occidental and Healdsburg markets, as well as at a handful of shops and restaurants, mainly in Occidental and Sebastopol.

“I think through this project, and through involvement with the farmers’ markets and the general community, we built a home.” Nate Bender, co-founder, Big Spoon Sauce Co.

Hyper-local focus

As chili crisp has grown in popularity in the U.S., the number of producers has grown, too. Bender and Chan enjoy trying different ones.

“We don’t just eat ours at home. We eat everybody’s. We really love to mix it up,” Chan said.

When it comes to their own sauces, they’re committed to making something unique to Sonoma County.

Bender grows some of the chiles in the sauces in their Occidental backyard. They source ingredients from local farms whenever possible and even foraged on the Sonoma Coast for the nori and kombu seaweed they used in a recent limited release of Kraken Sauce that sold out in a matter of days before Christmas.

They have a new seasonal release in the works that features lemon drop peppers from Triple T Ranch in Santa Rosa. It promises to be a welcome taste of spring sunshine after the long wet winter.

Further out, Bender has a three- to five-year plan that includes more collaborations with farmers and chefs, as well as becoming a B Corp, like Clover Sonoma and Miyoko’s Creamery and other local companies that share a commitment to sustainability, workers and community.

As Bender and Chan have grown their business, they’ve realized they have created more than a brand.

“I think through this project, and through involvement with the farmers’ market and the general community, we built a home,” Bender said.

Now they’re looking to put down roots in Sonoma County, literally. They want to buy a house so they finally can plant those citrus trees.

Lunar New Year purists will tell you not to eat jook, as it’s a frugal food and eating it during New Year celebrations portends a year of financial difficulties. If you’re superstitious, make this now or wait until after the Lunar New Year, which begins Sunday.

Using a high-quality homemade stock is key to this recipe. If you must use store-bought, infuse it with aromatics such as a small knob of ginger, cilantro root and a garlic clove.

Chan and Bender top theirs with soy-sauce-marinated eggs, sauteed wild mushrooms and pickled daikon. But use your imagination and whatever is in your fridge.

Jook (aka Congee)

Makes 4 - 6 servings

2 quarts stock

1 cup white jasmine rice

1 teaspoon salt

Big Spoon Sauce Co. Magic Beans (for topping)

Place stock and rice in a large stockpot and bring to a low simmer. Cook for about 2 hours, until it has the consistency of porridge. Add salt, to taste. Serve plain or with a spoonful of Big Spoon Sauce Co. Magic Beans.

This is one of Chan and Bender’s favorite main dishes. It’s packed with delicious flavor yet has minimal prep time. For the Lunar New Year, it’s important to serve the whole fish because the Cantonese word for “fish” is pronounced similarly to the word for “abundance.”

Chan and Bender adapted the recipe below from “The Woks of Life.”

Steamed fish with Ginger and Scallions

Makes 2-4 servings

1 whole fish (trout, sea bass, etc.), roughly 1 ½ pounds, descaled and cleaned

1 6-inch piece ginger, sliced into matchsticks

1 bunch scallions, green parts cut into 3-inch pieces, white parts finely chopped

1 bunch cilantro, roughly chopped

¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil

¼ cup soy sauce

¼ cup water

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon ground white pepper

To serve

Steamed rice (or jook)

Big Spoon Sauce Co. Chili Crisp

Rinse the fish thoroughly.

Use a saute pan or skillet with a lid, and fit the pan with a metal steamer basket. Add ½ inch of water to the pan. Brush the steamer basket with a thin layer of oil to keep the fish from sticking, and add the fish. If the fish is large, tuck the tail in so the lid has a good seal.

Turn heat to medium and let steam. Steam the fish for 8 minutes. Before removing the fish from the basket, check to make sure it is opaque all the way through.

Carefully transfer the fish from the steamer basket to a serving platter. This platter should be heatproof and at least an inch deep to allow space for the sizzling sauce to follow.

Spread green parts of the scallions, cilantro and half the ginger matchsticks onto the fish.

In a saucepan over medium-high heat, heat 2 tablespoons of oil and the other half of the ginger until it begins to sizzle. Add the soy sauce, water, sugar, sesame oil, salt and white pepper. Add the remaining olive oil and the white portions of scallion. When the mixture is sizzling again, carefully pour it over the fish in the platter. Serve immediately, over rice with Big Spoon Chili Crisp, to taste.

Wontons are a great party food, and Chan and Bender will customize this to be vegetarian or use a different protein when the mood strikes.

Wontons also freeze well. Just make sure to space them in a container when storing so they’re not touching, to prevent them from sticking together.

Find mushroom powder, shaoxing wine and shanxi vinegar at Asian grocery stores.

Pork Wontons with Chili Oil

Makes approximately 48 wontons

For the dough

¾ cup boiling water

1 tablespoon white miso paste

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour

For the filling

1 ½ pounds ground pork

2 cups chopped Chinese garlic chives (or scallions)

7-10 dried shiitake mushrooms, rehydrated and chopped

1 ½-inch piece ginger, minced

1 tablespoon mushroom powder

1 tablespoon shaoxing wine

1 tablespoon sesame oil

1 teaspoon sugar

½ teaspoon white pepper

To serve

Big Spoon Sauce Co. Dragon’s Booty (or any Big Spoon sauce)

Low-sodium soy sauce

Shanxi black vinegar

Chopped scallions and cilantro

Sesame seeds

First, make the dough. Stir miso paste into the boiling water. Put flour into a large mixing bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Slowly add the water-miso mixture to the flour and knead by hand or with the mixer into a dough. It should form a slightly sticky ball. Cover with a damp cloth and place in a warm spot to rest for 1 hour.

Meanwhile, make the filling by combining all ingredients in a large bowl. Set aside.

Set a large stockpot of water over medium heat. Add a big pinch of salt.

After 1 hour, the dumpling dough should be springy to the touch. Divide the dough evenly in half, then into 4 pieces, then 16 pieces, etc., until each piece is about the size of a thumbprint. Roll each piece into a circle, coat with plenty of flour to avoid sticking and set aside in a stack. Cover with the damp towel to prevent them from drying out. (Alternatively, you can run the dough through a pasta roller and use a cookie cutter.)

If it’s not already, bring the water up to a boil.

Now the dumplings are ready to fill and fold. Place a small spoonful (less than 1 tablespoon) of filling in the center of 1 dough circle. Fold the bottom part up so the dumpling forms a half circle . Press all the way around to seal. The dough is plenty hydrated, so it should stick to itself easily. If not, dip your fingers in water and use them to help make the edges more tacky.

Flip the dumpling over, grasp the 2 corners and connect them by pinching 1 on top of the other. This is your first trial wonton. Drop it in the boiling water and cook for 2 to 3 minutes or until the dumpling floats to the top and the wrapper appears slightly translucent. Taste it and adjust seasonings, if necessary. Remember to not over-salt, as you’ll be dressing these with plenty of condiments.

Continue folding all the dumplings (this is a good time to put friends and family to work), and set aside on baking sheets.

Boil remaining dumplings in small batches to cook. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the wontons straight from the cooking water to a serving platter. Serve immediately, with your choice of Big Spoon Sauce Co. chili crisp, fresh herbs, soy sauce, black vinegar and sesame seeds. You can dress the wontons ahead of time for an easy appetizer or set condiments out for guests to garnish as they wish.

You can reach Staff Writer Jennifer Graue at 707-521-5262 or jennifer.graue@pressdemocrat.com.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:
  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.