According to Instacart, an American company that operates a grocery delivery and pick-up service, home cooks will be more adventurous with their flavors as they introduce exotic spices in their pantries this 2021. This is based on their sales report, which indicates that purchases for piri piri sauce, an African chili, increased by 725 percent; za’atar, a Middle eastern herb blend, rose to 39 percent; and Lao Gan Ma, a Chinese brand of chili sauce, was up 227 percent.
I’m familiar with the first two supermarket items and have even cooked with them, but the last one was a mystery, which led me to consult friends and Google its origin and use. Apparently, it’s a staple in many Chinese households.
Chef Sabrina Gan, who has a thriving home-based business selling Chinese favorites like pata tim and kiampeng, first tried Lao Gan Ma when she lived in Beijing in 2007.
“This brand of chili sauce was recommended to me by a Chinese colleague as I was looking to fill up my pantry,” she says. “Trying the varieties was interesting and each had a unique flavor that can be used as a sauce and also for cooking different dishes. The variant I was most surprised with was the one with the fermented beancurd. The flavor is something unfamiliar, but there is a richness you get from it that is really distinct.”
Since then, the line has been a staple in her family’s household, not just as a condiment but a cooking ingredient as well. “I learned how to make a spicy tausi chicken from a Chinese friend using the Lao Gan Ma with black beans.”
She first marinates diced chicken fillets in salt, rice wine and cornflour. Then, she proceeds to stir-fry the chicken in a hot wok, sets it aside, and in the same wok, stir-fries garlic, leeks, dried chilies, bell peppers, Lao Gan Ma with black beans sauce, rice wine, oyster sauce, sugar, dark soy sauce and a little bit of water or chicken stock. She tosses the chicken back in, mixes everything and serves this dish, which guests eat just as fast as it was cooked.
Lao Gan Ma, a.k.a. “old godmother,” is a brand of chili sauce founded by Tao Huabi in Guizhou, China, back in 1997. Her success is a rags-to-riches story.
Born into a poor family in a remote mountain village, Tao Huabi became a widow just a few years after getting married. Not adept at reading or writing and with two kids to raise, she had to rely on what she knew best, which was cooking.
She opened a noodle shop and not long after, the special chilli sauce that she served with her dishes became an instant hit. Seeing the potential, she bottled them, made varieties, and built a multimillion-dollar empire.
Lao Gan Ma, whose face appears on the bottle, has a roster of sauces. The crowd favorites are the chilli oil with black beans and the spicy chilli crisp, which combines chilies, fermented soybeans, garlic and onions. The hot chili sauce has peanuts, fried beancurd, and preserved root vegetables.
What’s unique and surprisingly pleasant are the tomato chilli sauce and oil chilli condiment with mushrooms. The former makes for a piquant condiment, while the latter is chunky and can be added to stir-fries or even just plain rice.
My tolerance for edible heat is low, but I did enjoy this line because they add spice and flavor to any dish, without killing the palate. Staying on trend, here’s an easy dish that can spice up your week.
Chilli Chicken Noodles
Good for 2-3 persons
300 g noodles
1 Tbsp dark soy sauce
2 Tbsp honey
1 Tbsp peanut butter
2 Tbsp Lao Gan Ma spicy chilli crisp
1/2 Tbsp sesame oil
1 chicken breast, poached and shredded
1/4 c chopped peanuts
1. Place noodles in boiling water until cooked. Drain. Set aside.
2. In a bowl, combine soy sauce, honey, peanut butter, chilli crisp, and sesame oil. Mix well.
3. Toss chicken and noodles in sauce. Gently mix until combined.
4. Transfer to a plate. Sprinkle peanuts. Serve with lemon wedge.
Lao Gan Ma is available in leading groceries and supermarkets.