Spotlight Pairing: CY Eats MáLà Chili Oil | culture: the word on cheese
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Spotlight Pairing: CY Eats MáLà Chili Oil

Christine Yi, photographed by Silver Chang

If you are Christine Yi, the food-obsessed world traveler and active amputee who shares her adventures on Instagram with more than 254,000 followers, you don’t eat dumplings in New York’s Chinatown with any run-of-the-mill Chinese chili oil. You bring your own, along with a mother-of-pearl spoon. “It literally goes everywhere with me,” Yi says.

Growing up in a traditional Korean household in Westchester, New York, Yi’s love for food and ingredients started early. Helping in the kitchen was the norm—sneaking bits of meat meant for the mandu (Korean dumplings) prepped her palate for things to come.

In early 2000, living on the fringe of NYC’s Chinatown, Yi indulged whenever she could in the authentic bites that surrounded her; this serious introduction to Chinese food, guided by a Cantonese friend who lived nearby, was a precursor to her entrepreneurship.

Several years later, the opportunity to work in China arose. “I was thrilled to go just to eat!” Yi recalls. Blown away by the intense depth of flavors and how both dishes and condiments varied in heat and preparation from region to region, Yi came back to New York trying to satisfy her cravings.

While it was easy to get good hot pot takeout, the chili oils she found were lackluster, filled with MSG and a long list of ingredients—no match for what she had in China. “Nothing was amazing,” Yi says. “For years I kept saying, ‘I need to find a good chili oil.’ The thought of making my own never really crossed my mind.”

In 2014, with a husband and a hedge fund job behind her, Yi’s food Instagram career began to take off, but her chili oil quest was still unfulfilled. Fast forward three years: Her fiancé, chef James Tracey, convinces her to dig up her food notes from her time in China, stop searching for the perfect chili oil, and make it herself.

After fine-tuning the recipe at home and documenting some of the process on Instagram, Yi got hundreds of requests to purchase her chili oil, which she began selling in the fall of 2020. She was 44 and recovering from a 17-day hospital stay after a surgery on her amputated leg, which she lost in 2003 in an accident in the New York City subway.

“My surgery did not heal enough to get back into my prosthetic leg, so I was crutching one-legged to the post office with a big bag of chili oil over my shoulder!” Yi says. Her original product, CY Eats MáLà Chili Oil, boasts rich and bright savory notes combined with a silky mouthfeel, the result of coaxing a balance of flavors from chiles native to China’s Sichuan province and more than 20 other spices. “It’s also a bit smoky and mysterious, something I have not found in other commercial oils,” Yi says.

MáLà means tingly or numbing, and this is the milder of the two chili oils she produces. Yi lets the mixture sit for 24 to 36 hours until it’s harmonious. The spicy version includes the addition of Xiao Mi La chiles, a small but mighty pepper. Each jar is labeled with its batch number. “My favorite compliments are from Chinese people who tell me that my oil is their favorite outside of China,” Yi says, adding that while traditional Korean cuisine doesn’t have a chili oil condiment, it doesn’t mean she can’t come up with one. “That idea is definitely on my radar.”

Pairings: Created by cheesemonger John Montez, ACS-CCP, Murray’s Cheese, New York

OLD FARMDAL GOUDA: I never thought of chili oil on a cheese board—but after these pairings, it has a place. This subtly sweet gouda has caramel and butterscotch notes, but it also has a bit of a bite. Original MáLà Chili Oil complements the cheese perfectly and brings out its deep, rich flavors. Marcona almonds and Rustic Bakery’s Sea Salt Flatbread are perfect accompaniments. Since the oil is so flavorful and forward, a bolder honey like Andrew’s Buckwheat Honey is a great addition.

MALVAROSA: From Valencia, Spain, this sheep’s-milk cheese is similar to a Pyrenees brebis; it also has a touch of sweetness and some nutty notes. It’s a little softer than the gouda, and the chili oil brings out notes of butterscotch.

MILTON CREAMERY FLORY’S TRUCKLE: This 12-month-aged clothbound cheddar is crumbly, peppery, and grassy. It has zero sweetness but enough flavor to balance both the spicy and original oils—and enough texture for the oil to adhere perfectly. We ate it with my homemade Thanksgiving cranberry sauce—it was a match made in heaven!

ÉPOISSES: Époisses is a funky and stinky yet lovable cheese. It’s very creamy, soft, and so fun to drizzle the oil on to—and the funk of the cheese tones down the oil. This pairing was my biggest shock and showed me the oils’ versatility. I did not think the Époisses could get any better.

CHILI OIL GRILLED CHEESE: Instead of putting the chili oil in a grilled cheese or using it as a dipping side, grill sourdough sandwich bread (I used She Wolf Bakery’s Polenta Pullman Loaf) in the original chili oil first. Then add Old Farmdal Gouda and Flory’s Truckle. The result with is harmonious in taste and texture. Add a little Malvarosa to make it a bit more complex and delicious.

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