In February of 2015, in a tiny ramen-ya in the Far East Plaza in Chinatown, Jonathan Gold led a hot sauce taste-off with chefs Roy Choi and Alvin Cailan. They assembled an array of fiery condiments, including hometown favorite Sriracha, and bottles of Cholula, Tapatío, Tabasco and sambal oelek. At the last minute, I introduced a bottle of Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Crisp to the mix.
I watched as the three men dunked a series of pink plastic spoons into the sauces. They sampled the condiments, squinting their eyes and pursing their lips. After all the bottles had been considered, it was the Lao Gan Ma that won over all of them.
Lao Gan Ma, the gold standard of chile sauces, was created in 1984 in Guizhou, China, by a woman named Tao Huabi. Hers is the face that stares back at you on the label. For many years I called it the “sauce with the stern lady” (she is not smiling in the photo).
It’s a sludgy mix of oil, fermented soybeans, dried chiles, crispy onions and MSG. It’s not so much a condiment as it is a composed dish you can eat on a spoon, with an intense, sweet onion aroma and a plethora of textures and spices. It’s so popular in China that tourists often travel with their own bottles.
Wee Chi Li, who co-owns the America Asia Travel Center, a travel agency in Los Angeles, works primarily with tourists from Asia and can attest to the condiment’s popularity . He started seeing visitors from mainland China bringing bottles of Lao Gan Ma to Los Angeles about 20 years ago, especially those from Hunan or Sichuan, two areas known for spice-heavy foods.
“When they come to the states, they bring it so that no matter what they are eating, they can add some flavor to enhance the food,” he said.
You can find a jar of chili oil on the tables at countless restaurants and noodle shops in the San Gabriel Valley, but in the last two years, Los Angeles has experienced achile sauce revolution. Local chefs and entrepreneurs have created at least 16 versions of chili crisp and chili oil, and the majority have popped up in the last year.
The recent wave of product can be attributed in part to chefs and restaurateurs nostalgic for flavors they experienced in the past, the rise of entrepreneurial thinking during the pandemic, and a growing acceptance and need among diners for a hot sauce that is aggressive in both texture and flavors.
Susan and Mike Wong, who started selling the Bits Chili Oil on Instagram in February, believe the pandemic helped prompt the recent surge in popularity.
“I think that especially during the pandemic, a lot of people cooking at home need anything possible to amp up their cooking game,” Susan said. “Maybe they are not wanting to buy the same things, and they are getting more adventurous with buying food products on social media.”
While chili oil, typically made by pouring hot oil over chiles and aromatics to create a sauce, has been popular in China for decades, the Western world started paying attention after the success of Lao Gan Ma. The company reported $835.6 million in sales revenue in 2020.
Some of the newer entrepreneurs refer to their chile sauces as chili oil; others call it chili crisp, which is what you get when the chiles and aromatics such as onions and garlic crisp up during the process. Maggie Zhu, a chef and author from Beijing, says chili oil and chili crisp are not technically the same, but that there really isn’t a separation of the two concepts in China.
“They both fall under the ‘hot sauce’ category, and there is a spectrum of them in terms of texture and ingredients,” she said.
In China, Zhu says people refer to chili crisp as chile sauce or Lao Gan Ma. And the styles can vary based on the region. “Sometimes it’s blended with fermented black beans,” she says. “If you go down into more coastal areas in the southern part, sometimes they add dried fish or fish paste.”
Jing Gao, a chef and entrepreneur, developed one of the first of the new generation of chile sauces called Fly by Jing Sichuan Chili Crisp. She created the sauce as part of a supper club she started in Shanghai and started bottling and selling the sauce there in 2018. Later that year, she visited the Expo West food show in Anaheim to see what else was on the hot sauce market.