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Lao Gan Ma, a Chinese Staple

Photo by Ty Mecham from Food52

I was fortunate enough that both my parents were decent chefs who could navigate around the kitchen and make Chinese food pretty well. There was always something new to eat, and they always knew when I would want to eat my favourite meal, Hong Shao Rou (braised pork belly), or just some simple homemade dumplings. Even my mother's friends wouldn't hesitate to bring over whatever new dish they cooked or picked up at a local Chinese restaurant when they came to visit us. To put it simply, I feel that I have always been blessed by my eating and culinary experiences at home.

However, even though all this delicious food has surrounded me, there has always been one item that I continue to revisit. Like many others, I have an incurable obsession with Lao Gan Ma and constantly eat it in my everyday life. Surely everyone has seen the famous bottle at some point in their life, either in their local Asian grocery store or even at large supermarkets like Walmart. The dark-red clear bottle with the red cap and friendly-looking Asian woman surrounded by brightly-coloured text is an image iconic enough to last a lifetime.

For those who don't know, Lao Gan Ma, also known as 老干妈 or Old Godmother, is a brand of Chinese chilli sauce that is a staple in almost every Chinese family's pantry. It was first established in 1997 by a woman named Tao Huabi, who created the original recipe of the sauce and then became CEO of the company, Lao Gan Ma Special Flavour Foodstuffs Company, which still produces it today. Since its founding, the company makes over 1.3 million bottles of the sauce every day to be sold both in China and abroad.

Her chilli sauce's origin is relatively simple; she was born into poverty in the Guizhou province and married a geologist but had to find work after her husband fell ill to care for her family. These difficulties eventually led her to open a shop specializing in simple noodles mixed with spicy soybean hot sauce. As time went by, she realized that more people were interested in only the sauce and not the noodles. This inspired her to open her own company and begin selling the sauces on their own. The start of her company introduced her special chilli sauce into the mass market, letting the item skyrocket into unmatched popularity and making her a self-made billionaire.

Besides the inspiring story, you might wonder: what's so special about this sauce that sets it apart from other chilli-based sauces? Well, the secret seems to lie in the wide variety of sauces that the brand produces! One of the most famous ones is the classic Lao Gan Ma chilli oil with black bean, the undisputed classic and the sauce that started it all. After the black bean sauce's success, other alternatives such as spicy chilli crisp and hot chilli sauce gained their own circle of loyal followers and enthusiasts. The spicy chilli crisp is known for its crispy garlic and onions, which add a nice crisp texture that isn't too overpowering. On the other hand, the hot chilli sauce is one of the unique versions; it mixes up the original recipe by adding preserved vegetables, beancurd, and peanuts. This lets the sauce stand alone more than the other two versions as there is no need to add any peanuts or toppings separately.

Lao Gan Ma is capable of being used anywhere, literally. Have a bowl of white rice or some plain noodles that you don't know what to top off with? Well, you'll find yourself feasting after adding some chilli sauce on it. The black bean chilli sauce is also used as flavouring for dumplings, fried rice, stir-fried noodles, and just mantou (plain steamed buns). If you're feeling adventurous, you could even add it to some whole-wheat bread or a green salad.

No matter what you decide to try it with, Lao Gan Ma is an excellent addition to any dish! It's addictive for a reason and can spice up even the plainest of foods. It just might end up being a household staple for you too!


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