Forget Lao Gan Ma – these new chilli oil makers are bringing heat to meals in North America, the UK and Australia
- Lao Gan Ma may be the world’s most famous Chinese chilli oil, but a new generation of producers are putting their own spin on the condiment
- From London to Vancouver, young independent makers have used their own experiences and flavour memories to create chilli oils that resonate with their customers
The Covid-19 pandemic forced many people to sharpen their culinary skills at home, making everything from sourdough bread to dalgona coffee to huge batches of the same meal – and a lot of them turned to chilli oil to spice their food up.
According to Google Trends, which looks at search data, interest in the condiment nearly doubled in the last two years compared with pre-pandemic times.
Here are four that have made a name for themselves in the competitive world of spice.
Holy Duck Chili Oil
Hongkonger Louise Pang arrived in Vancouver, in Canada, in February 2020 just as the Covid-19 pandemic started. As a result, she and her Canadian-Chinese husband, Christopher Fung, ended up stuck at home and jobless for about a year.
“My maternal grandmother was a great cook,” recalls Pang. “In the 1950s, she and her sister escaped the Sino-Japanese war to Hong Kong. During the journey, they worked for wealthy Chinese families in the kitchen.”
Friends and family, upon trying the chilli oil, immediately encouraged the couple to sell it. This led to the birth of Holy Duck Chili Oil in July 2021. “We use rendered duck fat from a local duck producer, which makes the oil more luscious,” says Pang.
Their product features long chillies, called er jing tiao, from China’s Sichuan province, while lantern chillies are added for aroma and cone-shaped “facing heaven” chillies are used to add a pleasant heat level. The chillies are combined with over 10 natural spices and infused for about 15 hours.
They are then triple fried until crunchy to enhance their flavour and scent. The duck fat is combined with canola oil and a dash of sesame oil for a buttery texture.
Fly By Jing
A native of Chengdu, in Sichuan, Gao Jing says the idea for Fly By Jing began in 2018 when she was travelling around Europe and North America, and lugging a suitcase of Sichuan ingredients that she was using at underground supper clubs.
“It wasn’t until I was in my mid-20s that I returned to China and began to really reconnect with the flavours of my culture,” says Gao, who is now based in Los Angeles, in the US. “I spent a lot of time working with master chefs and doing some food writing as well, just so I could learn and absorb as much as I possibly could about Sichuan food.
“What eventually became our Sichuan Chili Crisp was the base of many of my dishes during that time. I could see the visceral reaction diners would have to the flavours, which starts with the ingredients. Even if people weren’t familiar with the flavours, they had an instant connection to it, so I knew there was something there.”
The product is made in small batches in Chengdu, using a combination of dried chilli peppers, fermented black beans, shallots, garlic, sesame oil, mushroom powder, seaweed, rapeseed oil and soybean oil.
“The chilli crisp is smoky, [has] a hint of sweetness and a delicate kick of tangy spice, and all the ingredients come together in such a wonderful way that leaves you craving more. It’s complex, rich and real,” Gao says, adding that she wants to show that “Made in China” products can be produced with high quality ingredients.
Across the Atlantic in London, Amy Poon is bringing back memories of her father’s eatery, Poon’s Restaurant, with a selection of sauces – including his well-known chilli oil with black beans.
Bill Poon has an extensive Chinese culinary background. He worked in kitchens in Hong Kong and Macau, and he was a trained patissier. He started Poon’s Restaurant in 1973 after arriving in London in the early 1960s. Seven years later, it was awarded a Michelin star. He was, according to his daughter, the first Chinese chef to achieve this honour.
Amy Poon has a background in advertising, events management and consulting, and she had worked in Tokyo, Sydney and Singapore before returning to London in 2007.
In 2018, she organised a Poon’s pop-up and recreated some of the restaurant’s signature dishes. Many diners reminisced about their favourite dishes that her father cooked.
“It showed us that there was still quite a lot of love for the name, despite the fact my parents retired in 2006,” she says. “It’s been dormant for quite a long time. And we had such an amazing response from the public, and people were so kind and so encouraging. Honestly, I was quite blown away.”
Her Malaysian-Chinese friend and cookbook author Helen Goh loved it so much that “she was literally licking the little sauce dish”, recalls Poon. “So I thought, OK, I’ll actually bottle it.”
It is aptly named Poon’s Extraordinary Chilli Oil and it has salted black beans in it – because her father likes it that way.
Down under in Sydney, Australia, Lucy Li left a career as a digital graphic designer to do something related to food – Xinjiang food in particular, as her parents are from the northwestern Chinese province.
Li created a product with her half-Russian, half-Chinese mother’s recipe for chilli oil and she launched it in 2018. Mama Liu’s Chilli Oil popularity has only grown since then.
Li started off by catering birthday parties at her workplace, serving her mother’s dumplings and chilli oil made from scratch. The interest in the condiment made her realise that, for those who had not tried Lao Gan Ma, this was something entirely new.
Encouraged, she sold Mama Liu’s at farmer’s markets – something that Li continues to do even now. She still gets excited watching people’s reactions when they try the chilli oil. Each jar of chilli oil is made by hand.
Mama Liu’s contains Thai chilli flakes, onion, garlic, salt and oyster sauce – which Li says gives it more umami and depth of flavour. And, unlike many chilli oil producers who let their ingredients stew in a pot for a period of time, she pours blistering hot oil over the ingredients to bring out the aromatics.
“I think a lot of people do the stewing method. I find it’s not so strong in taste, whereas with ours, you really get the garlic and the onion coming through,” she says.
Mama Liu’s is not about the heat, Li adds, but about its garlicky-ness and smokiness, which pairs well with all kinds of foods including pizza, pasta, dumplings and fried eggs.
When they first started, Li and her mother were making 1kg (2.2 pounds) of chilli oil a week. Now, they make 18kg to 20kg of it a week.
The jar’s packaging features a picture, taken when she was 16 years old, of Li’s mother smiling.
Everyone remembers the Lao Gan Ma branding, Li says, because of the unsmiling woman on the label. “And this is my version of it – my mum, but she’s smiling because she’s so friendly,” Li says with a laugh.