Photo: Erica Lovelace Cooks

Taste Testing Lao Gan Ma’s Chile Condiments

Come with me on this spicy journey into the Chinese pantry

When I was a kid, my favorite thing to do with my grandmother was to visit the local Asian grocery store. While she shopped, we’d trot past aisles and aisles of colorful labels we couldn’t read, vacuum-sealed bags full of mysterious fungi or cartons adorned with neon, bug-eyed characters. Fast-forward 20 years, trips to the Asian grocery store are key to keeping my pantry well-stocked with things like dark soy sauce, rock sugar, hot pot fixings, hard-to-get vegetables, and frozen dumplings.

If you’re lucky enough to have an Asian grocery store in your backyard — whether a local shop or a chain like 99 Ranch or H-Mart — consider stocking up on condiments from Lao Gan Ma. Lao Gan Ma is the original chile crisp before chile crisp became a front-and-center ingredient of mainstream chefs and publications like David Chang and Bon Appetit. There are even premium, small-batch brands like Yun Hai and Fly By Jing available online if you can’t make it to the market. Even though homemade chile oil is the kind of thing that has become a pandemic project— myself included as I made a version that was Whole30 compliant — I still find Lao Gan Ma to be tastier than my own versions.

Image courtesy of eBay. A piece of Lao Gan Ma swag for the inclined fan.

So what is this mythical substance of which we speak in hushed tones? “Old Godmother” is a classic chile sauce that was developed in the Guizhou province by Tao Huabi. Guizhou is in between Chengdu and Hunan provinces; a group of people not unfamiliar with the heat from Sichuan cuisine nearby. The story goes, Huabi started a noodle shop as a way to provide for her three children after her husband died. When people started to ask for her chile condiment recipe more than her noodle recipe, Huabi took this as a sign to open a factory dedicated to her ethereal concoction. Today, Lao Gan Ma is estimated to be worth $1.7 billion. Huabi not only is the chief operating officer; she remains the company’s unofficial mascot with her face printed on the glass jars.

Lao Gan Ma makes 12 products, including a pickled cabbage, chile bean curd, and hot pot mix. For the purposes of this article, I have chosen to only taste the chile-based condiments. They are all ranked in ascending order of my personal preference:

Image courtesy of Mala Market.

Chili Oil With Black Bean — The Tastiest

Easy to use, deeply rich, and ready to eat. The distinguishing feature of this sauce, uncommon to other chile oils, is the fermented black soybeans. Heavily salted, these little buggers are tasty, umami bombs that add an unexpected creaminess to an otherwise crispy combination of fried garlic and crushed chiles.

Eat this on top of soft tofu as a snack, dressed with cucumbers for an easy banchan-esque side dish (see recipe below for Sichuan cucumbers), or added to a fried rice dish at the last second.

2. Spicy Chili Crisp — Best All-Around Condiment

This is the classic chile crisp that was popularized by TikTok over the pandemic. It features crispy garlic, onions, and chiles floating in soybean oil. While that doesn’t sound particularly appetizing, this is fantastic to eat on its own without having to add to a hot dish.

Recommendations: cooked with scrambled eggs, topping for fried rice, or thrown in your favorite packaged ramen. This sauce is usually the one you find on the lazy Susan at the serious dim sum houses.

3. Tomato Chili Sauce — The Unexpected

The Tomato Chili Sauce was one I hadn’t seen before, this one was truly unexpected. Think of a thin onion, garlic, and tomato sofrito that’s ready to eat out of the jar, no cooking necessary. I found it to be similar to the pickled chili sauce below but tomato-based version is easier to incorporate into dishes.

Recommendations: added to tomato sauces for pasta or shakshuka for a spicy kick, topping for a soft block of cheese like fromage blanc (to be spread on crackers), napped onto a whole fried fish, base sauce for Singaporean chili crab, or spread onto your favorite burger as piquante substitute for ketchup.

Big Boy and I snuggling and reading Fuchsia Dunlop’s book, The Cuisine of Sichuan, for some spicy inspiration.

4. Pickled Chili

Similar to sambal oelek, an Indonesian condiment also popular in Asian grocery stores, this sauce is best served as a dipping companion for your favorite dumplings, especially when watered down with a bit of dark soy sauce and sugar. Feel free to use it as a substitute for any recipe that calls for sambal oelek, just know this is a bit chunkier.

Recommendations: dumpling dipping sauce, addition to vegetable stir-fries (like this Chile Garlic Spicy Cabbage), blend with shrimp paste in a mortar and pestle for a riff on fermented Thai chili dip (aka nam prik pao) or tossed into a marinade for Asian-style BBQ meats

5. Spicy Bean Paste

Think of this as the pulverized version of the Chili Oil with Black Bean. It’s thick and needs to be thinned with water or broth which makes it the ideal base for stir fry sauces or marinades. Therefore, something I would personally use less compared to its ready-to-eat counterparts.

Recommendations: base for ma po tofu with pork or other hot, stir-fried dishes, or or tossed into a marinade for Asian-style BBQ meats

6. Fried Chili in Oil

I had high hopes for this, I really did. It is similar in structure to the Spicy Chili Crisp but contains peanuts. Foolishly, I think the peanuts make for an extra layer of crunchiness but they turned out to be soggy and oil-soaked. If you’re looking for a nutty crunch from peanuts, I’d recommend adding Huang Fei Hong Spicy Peanuts, which are a key component to the unique streusel topping for ice cream below, after the fact.

Recommendations: consider piling onto your favorite hummus as the lack of crunch from the peanuts will not be an issue or incorporating into your flight of ice cream toppings. Seriously.

7. Hot Chili Sauce

Don’t buy this one at all. Similar to the previous sauce, this adds other unnecessary textures and elements including salted rutabagas, bean curd, and peanuts. Just a bunch of competing tastes fighting for attention in your mouth, in my opinion.

Recommendations: meh

My first attempt at a Lao Gan Ma dessert — salted caramel, chili peanuts with vanilla ice cream.

The most bizarre thing I attempted when playing with these products was a dessert featuring the Fried Chili in Oil. I made a homemade salted caramel sauce, tossed 1/2 cup of Huang Fei Long peanuts with a heaping tablespoon of Fried Chili Oil. I then toasted the peanuts in the chili oil. Both the peanuts and caramel sauce topped Coolhaus Best of Both Worlds Vanilla, and if you’re feeling frisky — extra Fried Chili Oil. Divine. It could only be made better with soft-serve ice cream. You can also attempt Kenji Alt-Lopez’s version of a sweet/salty dessert utilizing a crumble or brittle to cover the ice cream. Some other sweet possibilities: Spicy Chili Crisp truffles, Spicy Chili Crisp crème brûlée, or Chili Oil with Black Bean jellied donuts.

Sichuan Chili Crisp Sundae. Recipe courtesy of Kenji Alt-Lopez. Image courtesy of The New York Times.

The Cult of Chili Crisp is here to stay. If you find tasty, unique ways of incorporating it into your favorite dishes, drop me a line below. Until next time, stay hungry my friends.

Sichuan Cucumbers

By: Erica Lovelace Cooks

Ingredients

4–6 Persian cucumbers or 2 English cucumbers

Salt

Sugar

Chili Oil with Black Bean, Lao Gan Ma

Korean chili powder aka gochugaru

Thinly sliced jalapeños

Optional: Fried peanuts like Huang Fei Hong, chopped cilantro

Assembly

  1. Cut the cukes into 1.5” pieces. Smash evenly with the back of a knife.
  2. Toss all the cucumbers and jalapeños with a few pinches of salt, approximately a teaspoon. Let sit for 30 minutes. Strain out excess water.
  3. Add two teaspoons of sugar, 1 tablespoon of gochugaru, 2 tablespoons of the chili oil with black bean. Adjust seasoning to taste. Add more sauce if needed.
  4. Plate with fried peanuts, and/or chopped cilantro.

Hapa Southerner living in San Francisco | North Beach. Documenting recipes, collecting cookbooks, and writing. Marketing by day.

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