An ode to Lao Gan Ma, the salve to my self-isolation ills

It’s described as a “chilli condiment”, but it’s so much more.
A jar of La Gan Ma chilli condiment against a blue sky with clouds.

A jar of La Gan Ma chilli condiment.

Yvonne C Lam

These days, I’m seeking the silver lining to self-isolation. Pre-COVID-19, I’d never ordered takeaway or home-delivery, but now picking up the phone means I’m supporting the hospitality industry. I’ve called off my twice-a-week dinner visits to my parents – a devastating decision, but a necessary and temporary one to flatten that damn curve.

I’m cooking for myself a lot, perhaps more than ever, and it feels good to seek refuge in comfort foods. Savoury dishes, mostly home-style Asian ones, considering my Vietnamese-Cantonese heritage. A bit of gentle spice, perhaps. And that comfort is delivered in a jar of Lao Gan Ma, that popular chilli sauce, the salve to my self-isolation ills.

You’ll find it in Asian grocery stores in the ready-made sauces aisle. Just look for the distinctive red sticker bearing the image of founder Tao Huabi. Its original version is the awkwardly translated “chilli crisp sauce”, but there are a few spin-offs – black bean, fermented soy beans, tomato, even ones with chicken and pork.

My Lao Gan Ma of choice is the “chilli condiment” variety, a bland name which is like describing Beyoncé as one-third of Destiny’s Child – it does nothing to capture its all-encompassing bigness. It’s a roasted chilli-flake oil that delivers a life-giving shot of umami, mild mouth-numbing heat, a gentle roasted-malt sweetness. It’s oily, but crunchy and textural, and studded with the occasional peanut. It’s also incredibly addictive.

Spoon it onto stir-fries, noodles and congee for an instant flavour uplift. Combine it with Chinkiang black vinegar to make a dipping sauce for steamed vegetables and dumplings. Simply stir it through steamed rice for a savoury snack. Heck, I’ve had it for breakfast with fried eggs and avocado. I am not ashamed.

It’s the prized ingredient in Sunda’s lamb mapo tofu, Dan Hong’s crisp eggplant, Victor Liong’s white-cut chicken, hor fun and steamed barramundi. Chef Peter Gunn has described it as the “ultimate condiment” to any dish. This is a big claim. It’s also very true.

Look, Lao Gan Ma is no picture of health. The ingredients list reads soybean oil. Chilli. Peanuts (6.2%). Salt and sugar. Monosodium glutamate. None of these ingredients, save the chilli, would be described as “immunity boosting”, that questionable descriptor that prefixes so many recipes and products in this wellness-seeking age.

But it’s how it makes me feel that counts. Every spoonful is a shortcut to mealtime solace. It’s a savoury gift, a reminder that no matter how bad things get in the outside world, a spoonful of Lao Gan Ma makes everything right.

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