My older brother, the chef in my family, always blessed our fridge with homemade chili oil — a magical condiment that breathes life into dishes. I've always taken it for granted because chili oil is an understated essential at most Chinese restaurants and dinner tables. But in the last year, chili crisp recipes have appeared more frequently online as more American home cooks explored bold and new flavors during the pandemic.
Chili crisp has become a recent darling for American media outlets, with The New York Times, Bon Appetit, and others publishing glowing reviews and do-it-yourself recipes. Lao Gan Ma, China's "old godmother" chili sauce brand, in particular, has gained a cult following among foodies in the United States. Although the brand has a variety of flavors, the spicy chili crisp is among the most popular products in the West.
It adds the final, crunchy note that makes so many simple dishes whole, from dumplings and noodles to avocado toasts and even ice cream. My friend admitted she would eat a spoonful of it straight out of the jar when she's desperate for spice. The British chef Alex Rushmer once professed, he could eat "a bowl of gravel" if it were smothered in Lao Gan Ma — a fragrant mixture of fermented soybeans, peanuts, fried garlic, and dried chili peppers doused in bright red oil.
Most people would recognize a jar of Lao Gan Ma by the stern portrait of Tao Huabi, 74, the legendary godmother and founder of the brand. In the early 1990s, Tao ran a humble food stall in Guiyang, the capital city of Guizhou province. Her crispy chili oil became a crowd favorite and turned into a billion-dollar business.
Lao Gan Ma now serves as "an outpost of Chinese cuisine," according to Yanqin Wu and Kaiju Chen, cultural philosophy researchers at the Guangdong University of Foreign Studies in China.
In a case analysis of Lao Gan Ma, they wrote that the bright red oil represents an integral part of Chinese food culture that seeks to satisfy all the senses beyond one's taste bud. Although the Lao Gan Ma chili sauce is a staple condiment in China, Chen said, the flavors have gradually changed to cater to overseas consumers who prefer just "a little spicy."
Traditional Chinese chili oil is often homemade as most families have a unique, hand-me-down recipe. Staying true to our Cantonese roots, my brother uses dried shrimp and fried shallot in his chili oil while omitting the more common ingredients like star anise and cloves. Unlike store-bought brands, every jar of fresh chili oil carries some form of family heritage and regional flavors.
"There's a lot of hype around chili oil," said Jason Wang, the founder of Xi'an Famous Foods, a New York-based fast-casual chain that's known for its crowd-favorite chili oil. "It's a really simple thing to make, but people really mythicize it when they get a hold of these 'foreign' things."
"It's nothing too fancy," Wang said. "It's like pesto: you could buy pesto, but for good pesto, you'd probably just make it from scratch."
He added that, unlike Lao Gan Ma's savory sauce, most chili oils are not seasoned with salt. The chili oil at Wang's restaurant, which is still prepared by his father alone, boasts a soft yet fragrant type of spiciness that's in line with the taste profile of Xi'an, his hometown.
Lao Gan Ma doesn't exactly replicate the local flavors in Guiyang, its birthplace, which are mainly hot and sour. Although Lao Gan Ma manufactures dozens of varieties catering to different regional tastes, only several of them are exported to the U.S. The godmother brand has essentially become the sriracha of chili oil—honest to its roots but more favorable to a mainstream palate.
Chili oil has gained so much attention thanks to those who share recipes online and make ingredients more accessible, Wang explained. An influx of high-income Chinese workers and international students in the U.S. has also sparked an evolution of Chinese cuisine, expanding from a slim selection of staples like General Tso Chicken to a proliferation of specialized, regional delicacies. These newcomers have "set the bar higher" for restauranteurs, he said.
"We initially catered towards the immigrant population, the same type of people like my father who wanted to have hometown cooking," Wang said.
This search for nostalgia and diverse flavors has spurred young chefs in the U.S. to create chili oil that best represents their respective cultures. But the false stereotype of Chinese cuisine as cheap and monolithic has made it challenging to innovate and charge customers a fairer price. "We're not sushi. We're not Korean barbecue," Wang said. "It's very hard for us to mark things up even though it's pretty labor-intensive."
In 2018, Jing Gao, the founder of Fly By Jing, launched her Sichuan chili crisp through a viral Kickstarter campaign. She had spent years sourcing quality ingredients from her hometown, Chengdu, Sichuan's capital city that's been recognized by UNESCO as a cradle of gastronomy.
The Fly By Jing chili crisp features a mix of three chilis with different heat levels. It also uses gongjiao, or tribute pepper, a rare and premium delicacy that was sent to the emperor as a tribute. Gao described her chili crisp as aromatic with a layered umami flavor and "a bit of a funk" from the fermented black beans.
"Even the same ingredients but different grades will produce remarkably different results," she said. But at times, people raised their eyebrows at the price tag — $15 per jar — compared to several dollars for a jar of Lao Gan Ma at Asian grocery stores.
It's easy to dismiss the cost of premium ingredients and intensive labor when the West has perceived Chinese food as cheap and unrefined. Chefs like Gao and Wang are changing this dynamic by reeling in the hearts and stomachs of American diners and home cooks.
But the mass appeal of Lao Gan Ma's chili crisp is a gateway to discovering the complexity of Chinese cuisine. "The more people know about chili crisp — whether it's ours or not — the more it helps to increase the exposure and accessibility of it for everybody," Gao said.
Despite my appreciation for artisanal chili oil, I always keep a jar of Lao Gan Ma at home, ready to spice up any boring meal. And this well-kept secret seems to have found its way into the kitchens of many American households.