What is Lao Gan Ma Laoganma?
What’s there to say? It’s quickly becoming one of the most popular chili sauces in the world, it’s beloved in China and increasingly the West.
And really, it’s for good reason – it’s got just the right kick of spice for an all purpose sauce, its fermented ingredients give it a ton of complexity. it’s just something awesome to toss on white rice or really whatever.
But I don’t think enough people know that Laoganma isn’t its own unique invention– Laoganma belongs to a category of chili sauces from the Guizhou province called youlajiao.
What Is Lao Gan Ma?
So today we wanted to show you how Guizhou youlajiao fits in with the context of the cuisine there, a bit on how Laoganma got started and what makes them unique, and finally give you a recipe for how to make it yourself at home. because traditionally, this’s stuff that Guizhou families could and would make themselves.
Everyone’s familiar with Sichuan food, and why not.
It’s a great cuisine.
But it’s far from the only province in China that loves their chilis.
There’s an old, increasingly worn-out saying in Chinese that Sichuanese can handle their heat, that the neighboring Hunan province certainly isn’t afraid of their chilis,but that people in Guizhou are afraid of food that’s not spicy enough.
And while that quip’s definitely a bit on the hackneyed side these days, it does, I think speak to at least part of the essence of Guizhou cuisine.
Guizhou food is intensely spicy, sour, smoky, and makes heavy use of fermented ingredients.
A common aromatic is ‘yuxingcao’ which I love but I’ve seen others gag on.
It’s a cuisine with strong, bold, and unrepentant flavors… a suitable analogy to the province itself.
It’s hard drinking, packed to the brim with street food.. it’s got that sort of charismatic grit to it.
And they do certainly love their chilis.
A fundamental ingredient in the cuisine is a chili paste called Ciba Lajiao, or pounded chili, that can serve as a base for braises and stir-fries and we’ve covered that on this channel before.
Hulajiao, or roasted chili flake, is another classic.
And similarly, they also have a chili sauce called “youlajiao”, commonly translated into English as ‘chili crisp’.
You can see it as a topping in snacks like Juanfen, rice noodle rolls… it’s a great dipping sauce for any number of things, you’ll see it as an optional topping in the increasingly popular yangroufen lamb rice noodle soup… and it can even be found in a simple breakfast sticky rice bowl.
But here’s the thing – there’s not just one youlajiao different families and different restaurants make their own versions – which’s why you see so many different types of Laoganma chili sauce.
Some have a strong hit of douchi – that is, black fermented soybeans, some include a spate of crispy fried stuff, and others’ll even include a bit of chicken or beef jerky.
So it’s in this kind of culture that Laoganma was born.
While these sorts of origin stories are almost always apocryphal, the story goes like this: the original founder of Laoganma, Tao Huabi, had a Liangfen stall on the side of a highway outside of the capital, Guiyang.
Liangfen is a dish that’s usually topped with Youlajiao, and Tao Huabi’s was quite popular – in particular, people raved about her chili sauce topping.
It was so popular that she started making bigger and bigger batches and selling some of that chili topping to other vendors.
One day, she was feeling a bit lazy and decided not to make the topping, and as a result her customers ended up going elsewhere.
It was as this point that she realized that people really loved her chili sauce, not her liangfen, and decided to go strictly into the sauce making business.
So perhaps with a bit of a first mover advantage, Laoganma moved products fast, and in the early 2000s, started rapidly expanding outside of Guizhou and into other parts of China.
And as to why it became so huge?
Occam’s razor, it… takes good.
But I think that at least part of it also has to do with China’s internal migration.
Especially when I first moved to Shenzhen, I’d sometimes see friends from other provinces reach for Laoganma because the cuisines here on the coast tend to be more mild than the interior.
So at least for them, Laoganma was a decent answer – something they could eat with rice when their Cantonese canteen just wasn’t doing it for them.
How to make chili crisp.
Recently we’ve seen a spate of recipes online in English for this stuff, but in the end most of them use seem to use Sichuanese technique rather than Guizhou… so at the very least, we figured might be useful to clear the air a bit.
The variety of chili crisp we’ll be making is “san ding” or “three dice” chili crisp.
If you’ve had that Laoganma with the fried tofu inside, that’s the sort we’re talking about – together with the chili it’s got peanuts, datoucai preserved turnip, and of course some of that crispy tofu.
But even if you go in a different direction, the fundamental technique here should work with whatever chili crisp you want to make.
So first, let’s talk chilis.
The base of a chili crisp is those hulajiao that I was talking about before.
Depending on the kitchen, these are either toasted in a wok or roasted on ashes – we went with the former but feel free to play around with the latter if that slight smokey hit sounds a bit more up your alley.
Now the specific cultivar that Laoganma uses is a Guizhou chili called chicken claw pepper.
These’re actually not overly spicy, which’s why the chili crisp isn’t overpowering.
So outside of China, I’d recommend subbing these with primarily Kashmiri chilis – they’ve got a very similar color and flavor.
Chicken claw pepper is a touch spicier though, so if you’d like you could also add a touch of arbols or cayennes to your mix personally, I’d probably do a ratio of three parts Kashmiri to one part arbol.
So take your chilis, snip off the stems, and cut into one centimeter pieces and then these are ready to toast.
So to a cool wok, add in the chilis together with about 250 grams of salt and set that over a medium flame.
The purpose of the salt is to help these heat evenly because dried chilis do have an annoying tendency to scorch.
Once you start to hear small popping sounds, after about two minutes, turn your heat to low – this means your salt is hot enough.
Now continue to stir and toast those for about five minutes.
What you’ll be looking for is the chilis to get roughly chestnut colored, but as it always is with chilis, it’s safer to undertoast than overtoast.
So strain out the salt, give the chilis a number of good whacks to shake off any excess, and these are good to pound.
Definitely don’t waste the salt though, the chilis won’t impart much of a flavor here so this’ll all still be good to re-use.
Now add the chilis to a mortar and pound it into a flake.
You should be able to use a food processor for this too I’d imagine, but you definitely don’t want it to be too fine.
Going at it by hand, some of the chilis’ll get into more of a powder, some’ll be a larger flake, which’s perfect for a chili crisp.
And now that you’ve got your toasted chili flake set that aside.
Now for our other ingredients.
To give the sauce a bit of complexity, we’ve got a bit of douchi, black fermented soybeans.
As an aside, Laoganma uses their own propriety method for making douchi – it’s even been the subject of lawsuits, here we’re just using 30 grams of bog-standard Cantonese douchi which you can find on Amazon or at like any Chinese supermarket.
To those, add an equal amount of Baijiu liquor, and maybe sub that with bourbon if you can’t find Baijiu.
You’ll probably want to do this step before anything else, because this’s best soaked for at least two hours.
Now for the tofu, we’re using 60 grams of Dougan, which’s a sort of hyper firm tofu.
If you can’t find this stuff you could alternatively press some extra firm tofu, maybe swap it with smoked tofu, or just skip it.
Cut those into about half centimeter cubes, and we can give them a fry.
So in a cool pot with about two cups of oil, toss in your tofu cubes and turn the flame to medium.
Let those slowly fry and stir them periodically.
We’re not aiming for too heavy of a fry here, for reference we were working at about 125 Celcius once everything got up to temperature.
Once your tofu’s starting to get golden brown, after about ten minutes, take it out.
Last leg of the san ding, 40 grams of datoucai preserved turnip.
This adds a really nice flavor to the sauce, so definitely try to source it if you can.
I have seen this stuff at Chinese supermarkets in the West, but if you’re out of luck on that front you could alternatively use an equal amount of Sichuanese Zhacai, which’s available online and at most Asian supermarkets.
So get that into about a one centimeter dice, and set it aside.
Before we fry though, a quick aside about oils.
Guizhou youlajiao – Laoganma included – uses an oil called caiziyou as a base.
It’s a sort of virgin rapeseed oil that’s fundamental to a lot of dishes in the Chinese southwest, and here is no exception.
If you can’t find rapeseed oil, we’d recommend using Indian mustard seed oil instead… and
if you can’t find that, well… a nice peanut oil would still get the job done.
So to a pot add in one cup of your oil of choice and set that over max flame.
Heat that up until it’s just starting to smoke, about 220 centigrade, then turn off the heat.
Heating the oil up first cooks the oil and removes its ‘raw taste’ – a must here for rapeseed and mustard seed oil, and preferable if using peanut.
Once the oil’s cooled down a bit, to about 170, swap the flame to low and go in with some aromatics this was two inches of sliced ginger and about three cloves of crushed garlic.
Fry those for about two minutes, or until the garlics just barely starting to brown,then go in with the preserved turnip or zhacai.
Then fry all that for about five minutes until the preserved vegetable starts to shrink a bit, then remove the garlic and the ginger and optionally go in with one block of furu, fermented tofu.
This isn’t mandatory or anything, many Youlajiao sauces don’t include it but it adds a nice subtle fermented undertone if you do happen to have some lying around.
So add in the mashed furu, give it a mix, then go in with the black fermented beans and the baijiu bit by bit so it doesn’t pop too hard on you.
Fry that for another five minutes or until the moisture’s mostly bubbled away, then go in with the chili flakes.
Now it should be noted that we’re still over a flame here.
Low heat, about 90 to 100 centigrade, but still.
A major fundamental difference between Guizhou chili crisp and Sichuanese chili oil is this step right here.
Sichuanese chili oil adds hot oil to the chili flake and lets it steep, but here we’re going to be frying this over low heat for about five minutes.
This is what makes the chili crisp, well… crispy.
So at this point, add in your fried tofu and a quarter cup of fried or roasted peanuts then season with a half teaspoon sugar and a half tablespoon of MSG.
Quick mix, then add in about two teaspoons each of Sichuan peppercorns, toasted then ground, and sesame seeds, also toasted but lightly pounded.
Heat off, let it cool down a touch, then… jar it up.
For best results let that sit and soak at least overnight.
So does it make sense to make Lao Gan Ma at home?
If you’re just trying to mimic the taste of Lao Gan Ma… probably not.
But the best thing about making your own is that you can make your own adjustments.
For example, we added furu in it, which Lao Gan Ma doesn’t have but we really like the extra layer that it adds to the sauce.
For me, I really like the crispy tofu bits, that’s why I add extra… and if you’re like really into spicy food, you can try to use like really spicy chilis, or you could also try to use Mexican chilis.
So just play around with it, and make your own sauce.
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