Meeting Lao Gan Ma, “The Godmother”: China’s Best Chili Oils and Sauces

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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.

Lao Gan Ma

Spicy Chili Crisp on the left, and Black Bean sauce

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.

FC eats noodles test

A generous portion of Lao Gan Ma Black Bean sauce makes stir-fried noodles disappear.

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.)

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A tower of chili power

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The Godmother on the left, and a wannabe on the right

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.

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67 Responses

  1. Melanie says:

    Thank you for the suggestion of these condiments! I’ll have to try them out in our stir-frys.

  2. joan says:

    I love the Godmother! I discovered her about 3 years ago, after a friend in Tokyo posted about a popular condiment there called Taberu Rayu, “chili oil that can be eaten” –hot chili oil base, crunchy bits in it. Stuff like sesame seeds, minced fried garlic, fried onion bits. Couldn’t find it, but found Spicy Chili Crisp and fell in love. There is always a jar in the fridge (usually in a plastic bag, because it or indian pickle has turned a little corner of my fridge orange). After coming back from India a few years ago, I wanted curd (yogurt) rice for breakfast one morning. Didn’t have time to temper all the spices before heading off to work, so I just mixed in Spicy Chili Crisp. Not the same at all, but I was happy. Haven’t tried any of the Godmother gems, but I need to!

  3. Totally addicted to the Godmother – I wish she’d adopt me! A peerless addition to any pantry 🙂

  4. Xianhang Zhang says:

    I love Lao Gan Ma but my problem with it is it makes every dish you put it in taste like Lao Gan Ma. It’s not a sauce that blends in harmoniously in the background and if you use it too often, it can make everything taste a bit samey.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Yes, I get that. I just use it as a treat for myself now and then, so I don’t get tired of it. And my 15-year-old doesn’t mind samey in her snacks as long as they’re spicy and good. 🙂

  5. joan k. says:

    I finally picked up a bottle of the black bean…and you and Fong Chong are right, I love it! I noticed a new one, at least to me, today —“oil chili condiment with mushroom.” It has a white label, but Godmother is right there, so it has to be good!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Mushroom sounds interesting. It sounds a bit like their preserved veggies/pickles, which are super hot but great. So glad you like the black bean. The Godmother can do no wrong!

  6. James in NZ says:

    I am a huge fan of Lao Gan Ma in all its guises, and happily can even find it in Oamaru, on New Zealand’s South Island (or nearby) since it is a sine qua non in a lot of my recipes from my long time working/living in China. Great site, by the way, I am so glad I stumbled across it today!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      I love how Lao Gan Ma unites the world! Thanks so much for writing and for the kind words from m Oamaru.

  7. jmk says:

    So glad to see a write up of my favorite chile sauces! I had no idea about their backstory, just that I liked them. Not speaking chinese I refer to them as the “sour puss” brand. I dread the day things reach the state they change their photo to some smiling “aunt jemima”.

  8. Manda Menzies says:

    Hallo
    I am housemother to Chinese student pilots in South Africa and was introduced to the joys of Lao Gan Ma through my “kids”. Needless to say, I am a complete addict now and have converted my life partner as well who was not a spicy food supporter to begin with ! I would love to experiment and make a similar product for our household as we use a lot of it but it is not easily found here in our little town. As a matter of fact any help or suggestions are welcome as this food journey is and has been quite an adventure.

  9. Edward Yap says:

    Just a weeks back I bought a chili oil in a 7-11 here in the Philippines because we ran out of the brand that we used to have. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it tasted better and has an interesting aroma and flavor when added to noodles and other dishes. As the label was written in Chinese I searched the net found it here in your site.

    Its interesting to know that there is a story around that jar of sauce and happy to read everything including your recipe and those sauces which I always see in supermarkets. I’ll definitely try some of those mouth watering dishes and cook it for the family.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Thanks for writing, Edward! It’s fun to hear from people all over the world who love the Godmother. I wish we could get LGM in 7-11 here, but we have to go to Asian supermarkets. Enjoy!

  10. 222BoogieBoogieAvenue says:

    TH, I am SO incredibly glad to find your site and the ACTUAL name of this wonderful jarred beauty. I was turned onto it by a chef here in Boston, so I am going to link him to this site. He calls it LadySauce because no one could quite figure out the words. It totally rocks and we have a hard time finding it here- but it does show up in certain Asian groceries and within 2 weeks is totally gone again. I saw another one with a younger, different woman in the picture- is that another wannabe?? THANX so much for this needed info!!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      You are welcome! I had no idea when I wrote this how many fans Lao Gan Ma has in the U.S. and elsewhere outside China. Welcome to the club!

  11. Thanks for the recommendation, now I’ll have to look for this in my local Chinese mart 🙂

  12. Miira says:

    A fan of Lao Gan MA from Northern Finland!! 😀

  13. Lesley Bryce says:

    Gosh, I bought a bottle of this home from Tibet with me in about 2000, never could find it here, then found it, then it drops in and out of sight. Whenever I see it, I grab a few bottles. Just finished my last one yesterday. I’m just gonna buy it online I think. It’s a wonderful addition to anything chilli. I love Lao Gan Ma 🙂

  14. The sauces look great– but, does it bother y’all that these products contain MSG? Or is that a foolish concern?

  15. Dan says:

    I just discovered your blog, and I love it! I’m actually from Guizhou and came to the U.S. when I was 6. When my parents discovered Lao Gan Ma in the late 90’s, I felt like I finally had a taste of home. My dad has always told me that the characteristic of Guizhou spiciness, as opposed to Sichuan’s “ma la,” was “xiang la,” meaning “fragrant hot.” Hence the shallots and other ingredients that give Lao Gan Ma a more complex flavor. If you ever get a chance to go to Guizhou, I’d highly recommend it. The beef noodle soup there is still not something I’ve come close seeing replicated here in the U.S.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi Dan,
      Thanks for your great note. I would love to know more about Guizhou food and possibly make it there some day as part of a southern China trip. It would be interesting to see how the food changes from Sichuan to Guizhou to Yunnan. So thanks for the info. I’m definitely a fan of xiang la!

    • Rob YangYangYang says:

      I heard some Chinese friend say that every Chinese man has a mistress, in the form of this old lady 😀

  16. Christopher says:

    I love Godmother’s chili oil, the one with peanuts in it! The last time we went to the local Asian Market, my Chinese friend from Gaungzhou suggested it. He said most Chinese family’s have it in their kitchen. That was all I needed to hear! Haha!

    Now I use it all the time for my stir-fried meals. One heaping table spoon in the pan towards the end, and it is total deliciousness!

    I love the website and I am enjoying reading about your journey! Thank you for sharing with us all. Good luck! Bao zhong! Take care!

  17. Paul Winalski says:

    Until recently the only two Lao Gan Ma products I’ve seen around here (New England USA) are the Spicy Chili Crisp and Black Bean sauce discussed in this posting. But I recently found several other of the Godmother’s products:

    Chili Oil
    Fried Chili Oil
    Chili Oil with Mushroom

    The Chili Oil and Fried Chili Oil resemble the Chili Crisp, but with more oil and less of the crispy ingredients. The Fried Chili Oil is a bit more aromatic than the plain Chili Oil. I only just bought the Chili with Mushroom and haven’t had a chance to try it yet.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Thanks for the heads-up! I’ll keep a look out for the chili oils because it would be nice to have a version with more oil. It could be used in more recipes.

  18. Lantrix says:

    Her sauce is an essential flavour in all of my cooking!

  19. lapsklaus says:

    Thank you for a fantastic food blog. Using it all the time, in my own Sichuan culinary investigations. Every I’m at the asian supermarket to buy my stuff, I’ve noticed the Lao Gan Ma jars and thought that they look authentic and exquisite in some way, but I never bought them until today. I bought the black bean sauce and immediately googled it to find out more. I ended up on your website, where I’ve been a lot of times before, and read the whole story. Fantastic. Thank you very much for your insight and enthusiasm!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Thanks so much! It’s feedback like this that helps me keep finding the time to do this.

      Funny that the night before I saw this I improvised a quick dish from what I had on hand–some beef, celery, onions, sweet red pepper–and made a super easy sauce of dark soy sauce, light soy sauce, chicken stock and LGM black bean. It was delicious. The Godmother makes it so easy!

  20. I have never heard of this brand but then again, my family rarely strays from Lee Kum Kee because when we do, we are always severely disappointed.

    But based on your write-up, very excited to try out the different flavors when I’m back for our annual summer vacation in the States. Always love a good chilli or black bean sauce.

  21. Rob says:

    My girlfriend introduced me to my ‘Spicy grandma’ addiction and has been making jokes about me having a older woman as a mistress since 😀 … I must admit my cupboard does contain about 8 different varieties of the sauce at any given moment and I really love the stuff.

    Of course moderate use is advised since it does have a overwhelming flavor that can make everything tasting a bit the same as said earlier … but then again, I really really like how that flavor combines with some vinegar and soy sauce when eating homemade shrimp potstickers 😉

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Spicy Grandma! I like that one. And I agree about not overdoing it. I save it mainly for a few uses: on fried rice or as a shortcut for a stir-fry sauce when I’m too tired to chop up ginger, garlic, scallions, peppers, douchi, etc.

  22. Rob YangYangYang says:

    Lee Kum Kee is pretty sweet …. But the Godmother sauce will rock your world

  23. Joel says:

    I use the chilli bean and pork mince jar..all the time! adding to my noodle soups..ive had the peanut one and the normal one but always my fave is the pork mince one. I am from australia but i visit taiwan once a yr..love it!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Interesting that you can get the pork mince LGM in Australia. I’ve never seen it here in the U.S., and I’m not sure it could even make it past the import police. They are tough on meat products here. I must get some next time I am in China! Thanks for the tip.

  24. David Buckwalter says:

    I have a problem with many of these products as they are mostly over loaded with salt. Most of our general cooking we add little or no salt. Are any of these codaments available low salt?

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      I don’t believe any of the LGM sauces are low-salt. Fermented bean sauces are made from beans that have been preserved with salt. However LGM doesn’t taste particularly salty (as Pixian douban jiang does, for example). LGM also has MSG.

  25. EddieB says:

    Lao Gan Ma Black Bean Sauce was hugely popular in the lunch room of the factory I work with in China. I decided I had to bring some home to the States so I took a good look at the label, then went searching in the local supermarket after work. I found a shelf with about a dozen different products from Lao Gan Ma and about half of them looked the same. Of course the labels in China don’t have a word of English so I was stumped. The next day I took a photo of the jar in the lunch room, then made another trip to the supermarket and found a match.

    I’m able to find it at the local Asian market at home so I always have a jar on hand now. I don’t cook Chinese but it goes on my eggs every weekend.

  26. Madidre says:

    I know this might sound really strange, but the chili crisp mixes really well with Velveeta.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      I’m not entirely sure this comment is for real, but I love it because it speaks to my childhood–when I ate lots of Velveeta–and to my adulthood, when I eat lots of Lao Gan Ma. A must try!

      • Madidre says:

        Yeah that’s my “I don’t feel like cooking and I want to eat junk food” dinner. I don’t know how to describe the flavor because the two ingredients blend surprisingly well. Just try it, but don’t blame me for the weight gain :p

  27. Mackenzie Nellis says:

    I am also a devotee, having lived in China for 5 years and fallen in love with the stuff. Unfortunately, I can’t find my favorite flavor here in the States, and I wonder why? My favorite is 风味鸡油辣椒…chicken flavor. I have satisfied myself with plain Chili Crisp flavor to spice up my stir fry and noodles (basically a substitution for plain jane 辣椒), but I wish I had some of this Chicken Oil. That stuff was delish.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      I knew they made a beef version, but wasn’t aware of the chicken version. I wonder if we don’t see them here because it’s much harder to import meat products? That’s my guess. Or perhaps they just don’t think Americans are ready for their chili oil to contain meat. 🙂

  28. Laura says:

    When I had newly flown the nest for the city aged 18, a whole new world opened up in the form of a hole in the wall Chinese supermarket. Round the corner from the cafe where I washed dishes, lay a treasure trove of exotic ingredients from the east. One of my first tentative purchases was a jar of black beans in chilli oil that made my (then) vegan diet a whole lot more flavourful*. Even though it’s years since I purchased this sauce (having since turned to Fuschia Dunlop and cooking everything from scratch) fond memories of this special sauce have lingered. Despite the 10 year time lapse, Godmother’s face was instantly recognisable! And it warms my heart that to learn that she’s a self-made woman who takes care of her employees.
    Thanks for your blog, from the UK.

    *A less successful experiment was the tin of red fermented beancurd which I substituted for tofu in a meal for one…a bit salty to say the least…

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Thanks for sharing your fond memories of The Godmother. Seems like everyone remembers where they were when they first met her.

  29. Shim Vereker says:

    I’m addicted to Laoganma’s Chicken flavoured chilli oil with crispy tofu.. I keep a jar on my desk at work and one at home. I would spread it on toast if no one was looking. Was introduced to it by my brother’s Australian girlfriend. I buy it in bulk from china town in London!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Shim,
      You’re the second person to comment about loving chicken-flavored LGM. And there’s one with chicken and tofu? I recently looked through the catalog of the exclusive distributor of Lao Gan Ma products in the U.S., and we definitely don’t get those versions. I will have to try them in China next time. Thanks for the heads-up!

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