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The creators of Holy Duck Chili Oil are one of four up-and-coming chilli oil makers in Canada, America and Australia making spicy condiments to dazzle taste buds. Photo: Holy Duck Chili Oil

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.

Lao Gan Ma – known in the US as “chilli crisp” – is perhaps the most well known of Chinese chilli oil brands, but more independent chilli oil makers have emerged in the last few years.

Here are four that have made a name for themselves in the competitive world of spice.

Holy Duck Chili Oil was created in July 2021. Photo: Holy Duck Chili Oil

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.

Louise Pang with her husband, Christopher Fung, in Vancouver, Canada. Photo: Holy Duck Chili Oil
For the Lunar New Year in 2021, the couple decided to make chilli oil based on Pang’s grandmother’s recipe to give to friends and family, and they asked her mother how to make it.

“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.

The chillies in Holy Duck Chili Oil are combined with over 10 natural spices and infused for about 15 hours. Photo: Holy Duck Chili Oil

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.

The latest addition to Holy Duck Chili Oil is an “Extra Ducking Spicy” version using “seven-star” chillies – which Pang calls the spiciest chilli in China.
Fly By Jing is made in small batches in Chengdu. Photo: Fly By Jing

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.”

Chengdu native Jing Gao founded Fly By Jing. Photo: Fly By Jing

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.

She says the goal is to have Sichuan Chili Crisp on every table – not only to elevate the taste of dumplings, but also things like pizza, cocktails and ice cream. “If there is a combination you are curious about, go for it! There’s no judgment here, just celebration.”
Poon’s Extraordinary Chilli Oil has salted black beans in it. Photo: Poon’s


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 (right), the maker of Poon’s Chilli Oil, and her father. Photo: Poon’s

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.”

Poon’s Extraordinary Chilli Oil has salted black beans in it. Photo: Poon’s
One of the sauces her father makes from scratch is chilli oil with black beans in it. Poon says that, whenever he makes a batch, his friends send over jam jars for him to fill. She used one of the jars he gave her one night while entertaining a group of friends for dinner.

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.

Mama Liu’s Chilli Oil launched in 2018. Photo: Mama Liu’s

Mama Liu’s

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.

Lucy Li (left) and her mother in Sydney, Australia. Photo: Mama Liu’s

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.

“When you go to dumpling restaurants and such, they have chilli oil in little containers but it’s not available for you to buy,” Li says.

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.

The jar’s packaging features a picture of Li’s mother when she was 16 years old. Photo: Mama Liu’s

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.

Mama Liu’s is sold at farmer’s markets in Sydney, Australia. Photo: Mama Liu’s

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.