I use these flakes, also called dried red pepper flakes, for their convenience and good taste in place of the whole dried red chilis one often sees in Chinese dishes. Someone who is not Chinese and has not been brought up to avoid the fiery devils when eating will inevitably swallow or bite down on one whole, then suffer the painful consequences. I always use the flakes, whether I am serving in broad daylight or at a candlelight dinner.
Look for cherry-red flakes that are evenly cut, neither powdery nor ragged. The brands I favor are either from Thailand or ones that are labeled with the word Szechwan, which you will find packaged airtight in plastic pouches and sold in Oriental markets. In addition to being fiery, they are flavorful and almost sweet. Avoid the darker-colored Spanish label varieties, which do not look pretty and can taste bitter when cooked in a Chinese dish. Also avoid the canned or bottled flakes sold in supermarkets or gourmet shops, which are usually half as pungent at twice the price. Properly “fresh” dried red chili flakes should be so strong smelling that one whiff makes you draw back.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.