Meeting Lao Gan Ma, “The Godmother”: China’s Best Chili Oils and Sauces
Godmother to the Rescue~~
Eleven-year-old Fong Chong had been in the United States for a week in February 2011 and had found almost nothing she liked about it. Everything was foreign and strange in the extreme—the language, the food, her house, her parents. Now she was having dinner with people who looked like her and talked like her, but still it was weird.
The food these college girls had made for her was familiar, at least—sweet-and-sour ribs, red-braised pork—and somewhat comforting, but Fong Chong remained quiet and standoffish, unsure about everything, her perpetual grimace firmly in place.
That is until she got a taste of the mapo doufu.
There it was! The big intense flavor and mala burn that she loved so much. A taste that made her remember her favorite foods from home. Her face brightened as the soft tofu melted like a cloud in her mouth and the spicy bean sauce electrified her brain and speech. She began to laugh, and even joke, turning on the playful charm her dad and I had glimpsed a few times in China as we adopted her—in other words, turning on the real Fong Chong.
I liked the mapo doufu too, even though I knew it wasn’t authentic—meaning made the way it is in Sichuan—because I had already logged many hours in Chengdu cooking schools and home kitchens as a journalist and organizer of Sichuan culinary tours. I could detect no douban jiang, or chili bean paste, which is the earthy-chili soul of mapo doufu, made of fermented broad beans and chilies in Pixian County.
But my Taiwanese-American friend’s mapo doufu had its own irresistible chili bean allure. I quizzed her, and she graciously revealed her secret ingredient—a bright red jar featuring a photo of stern-faced Lao Gan Ma, literally “Old Dry Mom” but idiomatically “Godmother.” She let Fong Chong and me sample some of the black bean sauce straight from the jar, and we were both instantly hooked.
That was the night Fong Chong met The Godmother—”her” godmother—and the first of hundreds of times she would be both soothed and thrilled by her over the next four years of her new life. As my daughter’s personal Chinese cook, I too was soothed and thrilled as I learned about all the Lao Gan Ma chili oils and sauces and their infinite uses as ingredients, condiments and shortcuts.
I learned that Lao Gan Ma devotees (in America, mostly Asians) swore by Lao Gan Ma’s Spicy Chili Crisp—a super complex chili oil condiment, with abundant shallot crisps, Sichuan pepper bits and preserved black soy beans (dou chi). We became addicted to that one too, but our first love was the company’s Black Bean sauce, which does away with the onion crisps and doubles down on the pungent dou chi, or, in other words, pure umami. They are both spicy hot, but in a good, easily edible way. (There are others as well, including a chili oil with peanuts, one with rutabaga and beancurd and, in China, some with meat as an ingredient. The company also does a mean mala hotpot sauce.)
Fong Chong is a Cantonese with an outlier palate who prefers everything bold and spicy, so Lao Gan Ma became her go-to condiment for anything I made her with insufficient kick. When I was still figuring out how to feed her three meals a day of real Chinese food in a city that doesn’t have any readymade, I quickly learned that either sauce is a shortcut to flavor in a simple stir-fry or noodle sauce.
I love the Chili Crisp in any Sichuan cold noodle or cold chicken dish or as a topper for fried rice. (Note that Chili Crisp is not directly substitutable when recipes call for chili oil because it is packed with chilies and has little oil; use it in addition to chili oil.) The Black Bean sauce pairs well with stir-fried noodles, chicken, pork or vegetables. Go here for my Lao Gan Ma Black Bean Chicken recipe.
If I don’t include one as I cook, Fong Chong loads it on her snacks herself: Black Bean goes on stir-fried greens, or directly on top of boiled wheat noodles as a sauce; Spicy Chili Crisp goes in wonton soup or as part of a dumpling sauce with soy sauce and black vinegar.
I almost couldn’t believe there existed such a shortcut to complex Sichuan flavors. None of the Sichuan-cuisine experts I know in Chengdu ever introduced me to Lao Gan Ma sauces, perhaps because they’re not actually from Sichuan but from the neighboring province of Guizhou, which has a similar love of mala—ma being tingly Sichuan pepper and la being chili pepper. But I’m sure my Sichuan friends cheat with them too, as they are wildly popular throughout China, and on my most recent trip to Sichuan I saw them on the shelves of every supermarket I visited.
Who Is The Godmother?
I was curious about The Godmother, and a little internet research revealed that she is one Tao Huabi, who as an illiterate, widowed mother opened a small noodle shop that gained a wide following due specifically to her chili sauce. In 1996, she shut down her restaurant to take her growing line of chili sauces into production. Turns out she got her Godmother nickname precisely because she was so motherly and protective of her employees.
Almost two decades later, China’s Chili Sauce Empress still runs the privately owned Guizhou company with her two sons. “For a woman who is illiterate and with no background in finance, Tao’s is the success story of all time,” said Women of China magazine. “She has made a five-yuan jar of chili sauce as famous as the top-rated Maotai liquor brand.”
Lao Gan Ma’s success spawned legions of imitators, the largest of which she has battled—and beat—in court over trademark infringement. A 2014 media report on the publicity-shy company said management is not interested in going public or seeking capital to expand. Good enough. As long as she can make enough to stock my local Chinese market and keep my child happy I’m fine with The Godmother not becoming a household name in America.
Though we’re certainly not the only Americans with a secret addiction to Lao Gan Ma. In an episode of The Mind of a Chef, Anthony Bourdain’s show that followed Momofuku chef David Chang on his food travels, Chang went to a market in New York’s Chinatown. He proselytized much as I am here about the life-changing products you can find there. He never mentioned The Godmother, but something in his cart caught my eye and I rewound to see that I was right: It was loaded up with jars of Lao Gan Ma.
The Godmother has seen us through all the ups and downs of adapting to adoption. Fong Chong was still shell-shocked that first week in America, terrified and angry at the new, strange world she found herself in, and one of her first complaints to the Mandarin speakers at dinner was that we didn’t know how to cook and didn’t feed her.
I knew then that I had my work cut out for me. Even though I had been learning Chinese cooking for years before I even thought about adoption, I now had no confidence at all that I could match the three meals a day of home-cooked food she got at her foster home in Guangzhou.
There was a long road ahead, and I eventually got my footing, but The Godmother turned out to be a godsend in those early days.
Sourcing Lao Gan Ma
Lao Gan Ma sauces are pretty easy to find in Chinese supermarkets in the U.S. In fact, sometimes they are hard to miss, as in this photo of a display at Great Wall market in suburban Atlanta. They should retail in a store for around $2 per jar, which is without a doubt the most flavor you can buy anywhere for $2. (We also sell them in The Mala Market for those of you without easy access to a Chinese market. We have to charge more—to cover sourcing, storing, shipping, etc.—but they are still a bargain considering their tastiness and usefulness.)
You can trust just about any authentic Lao Gan Ma product. We’ve lately become enamored of her spicy preserved cabbage-and-chili condiment, used as a topping for rice, congee or soup, but also tasty in a vegetable stir-fry. The Godmother never lets us down!
Do you love The Godmother? Let me know how.