The cult following behind Chinese chili crisp – Yahoo News
Chinese chili crisp has recently gained a cult following in the United States. Home cooks and spice enthusiasts are using it to add extra flavors to dishes like dumplings, noodles, and even ice cream. / Credit: Getty/iStockphoto
My older brother, the chef in my family, always blessed our fridge with homemade chili oil — a magical condiment that breathes life into dishes. I’ve always taken it for granted because chili oil is an understated essential at most Chinese restaurants and dinner tables. But in the last year, chili crisp recipes have appeared more frequently online as more American home cooks explored bold and new flavors during the pandemic.
Chili crisp has become a recent darling for American media outlets, with The New York Times, Bon Appetit, and others publishing glowing reviews and do-it-yourself recipes. Lao Gan Ma, China’s “old godmother” chili sauce brand, in particular, has gained a cult following among foodies in the United States. Although the brand has a variety of flavors, the spicy chili crisp is among the most popular products in the West.
It adds the final, crunchy note that makes so many simple dishes whole, from dumplings and noodles to avocado toasts and even ice cream. My friend admitted she would eat a spoonful of it straight out of the jar when she’s desperate for spice. The British chef Alex Rushmer once professed, he could eat “a bowl of gravel” if it were smothered in Lao Gan Ma — a fragrant mixture of fermented soybeans, peanuts, fried garlic, and dried chili peppers doused in bright red oil.
Most people would recognize a jar of Lao Gan Ma by the stern portrait of Tao Huabi, 74, the legendary godmother and founder of the brand. In the early 1990s, Tao ran a humble food stall in Guiyang, the capital city of Guizhou province. Her crispy chili oil became a crowd favorite and turned into a billion-dollar business.
Lao Gan Ma now serves as “an outpost of Chinese cuisine,” according to Yanqin Wu and Kaiju Chen, cultural philosophy researchers at the Guangdong University of Foreign Studies in China.
Jars of Lao Ga Ma stocked at a local Chinese supermarket in Queens, New York. / Credit: Daphne K. Lee
In a case analysis of Lao Gan Ma, they wrote that the bright red oil represents an integral part of Chinese food culture that seeks to satisfy all the senses beyond one’s taste bud. Although the Lao Gan Ma chili sauce is a staple condiment in China, Chen said, the flavors have gradually changed to cater to overseas consumers who prefer just “a little spicy.”