When it comes to Asian hot sauce, you probably think Sriracha. It’s the most common brand in US supermarkets and it does the job when you want to add bite to your bites. But every condiment comes in many shapes, sizes and tastes and there are some fine alternatives to Sriracha if you look hard enough. For me, the best hot sauces are rich, chunky, flavorful and, of course, hot. My favorites also share another characteristic—I can actually see the ingredients in the sauce, whether chili peppers, hot oil, pieces of garlic, onion bits or soybeans. Lao Gan Ma fits all my criteria. It has complexity. It has bite. It’s an outstanding hot sauce.
I first experienced Lao Gan Ma in Tina’s Long Island home the day after Thanksgiving. Turkey is a very dry bird to begin with and leftover turkey breast tastes just a little bit better than unsalted cardboard. Tina must have seen my face as I tried to swallow each bite of this foul fowl. She handed me a jar of red sauce and said, “Here, add this to your turkey.” Tina is a first-generation Taiwanese whose parents immigrated from Szechuan, China, which means she grew up eating spicy food and lots of hot sauce. I knew instantly that her sauce would be a fine addition to my dry turkey. Indeed, all it took was half a teaspoon of Lao Gan Ma and in no time I had miraculously cleaned my plate. Wanting more of her hot sauce, I asked Tina for more of her turkey. She smiled and said, “I know you don’t like the turkey. Do you want some Taiwanese egg-pancakes instead? You can add the hot sauce on the pancakes too.” I was nodding my head before she finished the sentence.
Lao Gan Ma has a long history and the company, which started as a one-woman business, has been perfecting this hot sauce for eighty years. Already a very popular brand in China, the Chinese community in the US started to discover its appeal just a few years ago. This unique sauce includes crisp red chilies, garlic, onions, soybeans, canola oil, tree nuts and, its most distinguishing ingredient, peanuts. I use Lao Gan Ma as a both a dipping sauce and a cooking sauce, adding it to flavor many meals: dumplings, fried rice, noodles, hot pot, fried eggs and stir fries. And on nights when I’m too tired to cook and want something quick and tasty, I simply boil some noodles, mix them with Lao Gan Ma, some light soy sauce, a half-teaspoon of black vinegar and two drops of sesame oil. It’s delicious.