Like a lot of people we know, we have a battery of hot sauces in our pantry. We don’t have, oh, 100 different hot sauces, but we have a few, from the familiar (Tabasco, Cholula) to the popular (Sriracha) to the hyper-local (Dia de los Tamales Tree Sauce, made a few blocks from our house). Our collection includes a healthy number of Asian greats: hot oil, gochujang, Szechwan chili paste, Szechwan hot bean sauce. Who could have guessed we needed another? Turns out we did.
The other day the Internet threw one of those top-ten clickbait articles at me – top 10 best hot sauces. OK, fine, I thought, just fine. But one of the sauces was a thing I had never heard of before, Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Crisp. I thought: huh! Next, a quick Internet search: it seems people are crazy for Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Crisp. Next, I clicked over to Amazon and there it was. I ordered it. We have Amazon Prime, so it arrived less than two days later, just in time for our dinner with our spice-loving friends LaShawn and Warren.
Lao Gan Ma means Old Godmother, and there is really an Old Godmother: Tao Hubai, who, in the mid-90s, found herself middle-aged, widowed, illiterate and with children to feed. So she set up a cart, peddling noodles, and started making her own spicy sauce as an accompaniment. Customers fell in love with the sauce – so much so that Tao Hubai quickly understood that was where her fortune lay. China’s Rocket News reports, “In order to sign the contract establishing the new company, Tao Hubai, for the first time in her life, learned how to write the Chinese characters for her own name.”
Thus she became the creator of Spicy Chili Crisp and founder of her own enormously successful condiments company. A little over 20 years later, Tao is worth over RMB7 billion (about $1 billion!). Lao Gan Ma products are sold all around the world, and one million jars of her sauces are manufactured every day. Tao Hubai keeps her company strong and her products beloved by guarding quality throughout the supply chain, treating her employees with generosity and keeping prices affordably low. And she ferociously protects the brand, fighting – and defeating – her imitators in court. All this has come about without any advertising or marketing whatsoever. It is said that Tao Hubai still cannot write beyond being able to sign her own name.
Last year, when the Los Angeles Times conducted an Asian hot sauce tasteoff, the winner, hands down, was Spicy Chili Crisp. The judges – two chefs and food critic Jonathan Gold – compared it to “a three-course meal in a spoon.”
It’s called Spicy Chili Crisp because of the crunchiness – it’s full of oil and peppers, of course, but also bits of roasted shallots and garlic and other deliciousness. There are countless possible uses for this toothsome sauce. Stir it into any bland stir fry to liven it up. Add to bland takeout. Mix it into rice or pasta. Use it on a burger. Paint it onto chicken pieces and bake them. Put a spoonful in soup. You’ll see. Ideas will crowd your head too. Spicy Chili Crisp is just that interesting and just that addictive.
I want to add that Spicy Chili Crisp is hot, but not fiery, scorching, life-defying hot. In this recipe, it’s more a delightful mild burn. Next, I’m going to look for other products from Lao Gan Ma – especially the black bean sauce, generally described as seriously spicy.
This recipe evolved out of our recipe for Poison Gas Potatoes – taking that up a notch with a bit of animal protein.
“Old Godmother” Spicy Potatoes and Pork
2 pounds of potatoes, peeled and diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 pound ground pork
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon oyster sauce (optional)
1/2 cup (or more, if you like) Spicy Chili Crisp
green parts of 3 or 4 scallions, sliced
1. Peel and dice the potatoes, put in a pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer them until potatoes are just tender. Drain them and reserve.
2. Put the pork in a bowl, add the soy sauce and cornstarch (and the oyster sauce, if using it); squish everything together with your hands and let it sit for about 20 minutes.
3. In a big flat-bottom skillet, heat enough canola oil to coat the bottom of the panover medium flame and sauté the garlic until it starts to turn golden. Transfer to a bowl. Add the pork to the pan and stir-fry over fairly high heat, breaking it up with your spatula, until it is cooked through and starting to brown. Remove from pan and drain on paper towels. Wipe out the pan. If you wish, everything up to this point can be made a few hours in advance.
4. Add canola oil to the pan to cover the bottom and brown the cooked potatoes. Work in at least two batches to be sure that there is enough room for everything to color nicely. When the first batch is nice and golden, remove it from the pan and prepare the next batch. When that is done, put the first batch back into the skillet. Add in the pork and the garlic, stir and heat everything together over medium heat for a couple of minutes. Stir in half the scallions. Then stir in the Spicy Chili Crisp and fold and stir until it is uniformly distributed—less than a minute. Pour into a serving bowl, scatter the remaining scallions on top and bring it to the table.
I can’t find it, but I found something like it. No, you didn’t. Do not, DO NOT, try any of the copycats. The motto often imitated, never equaled might have been coined for this product.
I’m dicing the potatoes. Do I need a ruler? Don’t worry about making them look all perfect and uniform. The volume of each piece should be about the same, so they all cook at the same rate, but visually, don’t worry about it. This is a homey, homely, comfortable kind of dish.
Can I substitute something else instead of pork? Sure! Beef. Lamb. Ground or diced chicken. Or you can omit the animal protein entirely and just go with the potatoes, garlic and scallions.
Where can I find it? You can do what I did and order it from Amazon. That is a bit costly, but on the other hand, it comes straight to you – no traipsing through the shops. But if you have the proximity to Asian markets and the time, you should be able to find it in store for a far lower cost.
Related post on Blue Kitchen: Vietnamese beef stew