I discovered Lao Gan Ma by accident. I was in Chinatown’s Hong Kong Supermarket looking for the chili oil they use at Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles, a reddish-orange blend packed with dried chilies and spices. But I was at a loss. All of the jars and bottles looked similar, and because I tend to trust the opinion of the masses in large, busy supermarkets, I grabbed a jar of the stuff that was most popular, one with a sticker of a not-quite-smiling Asian matriarch (“gan ma” means godmother in Chinese). There were only three remaining on the shelf.
It turned out not to be the chili oil used at Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles — it was better. I actually don’t know if it should be called a chili sauce at all. It’s thick and crunchy, a texture it owes to an abundance of dried chilies that are fried and crushed. It’s more like a chili topping. There’s also the addition of fermented soybeans (which add a nice bit of funk), some Sichuan peppercorn for a mild tingling sensation, and — this is important — some MSG for even more umami. It’s spicy, to be sure, but not Elmhurst-Thai spicy: It’s balanced the way sriracha is, only with more crunch and oomph.
Now, I’m addicted to the stuff. I probably go through a jar a week and need at least five stashed in my pantry or I will panic a bit. I’ve made whole meals out of spicy chili crisp on rice or spicy chili crisp on scrambled eggs. I order sad takeout lo mein that is only edible if I perk it up with my happy crispy sauce. I’m not alone in my adoration for spicy chili crisp. Danny Bowien of Mission Chinese Food offers a cheffy dupe for it in his cookbook. Lucky Peach’s 101 Easy Asian Recipes calls it a pantry staple.
While you could always look for it in an Asian supermarket, it’s not something most are guaranteed to carry (or carry enough of, something I’ve learned the hard way many times). Do yourself a favor and buy it online — you’ll always find more than three jars.
More Strat-approved spicy condiments
Grub Street writer Hugh Merwin says these Calabrian crushed peppers “taste like sunshine, but have none of the lasting punitive effects of sunburn. Up front they tend to be sweet, with a bright and mild sting that gives way to a vegetal finish. If you’re not quite ready to commit, smaller sample-size jars of whole Calabrian peppers, which look like toy chilies and are pizza slice–ready, are also available.”
Grub Street associate editor Chris Crowley loves to cook with food in tubes, including this harissa chili paste: “It’s a versatile ingredient that you can use when roasting meats or vegetables, to give dips a bite, and much more. Entube is leading the tube-food vanguard, producing spicy and salty umeboshi, a fermented ume-plum paste that’s great in marinades and salad dressings, and Indian curry paste, whenever you want a cheat code for curry-house flavors.”
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