Living with or amongst a bunch of native Chinese for a few years, can have both good and bad consequences. I mean, if this can be considered bad, I no longer particularly enjoy going to most Chinese restaurants; having been inundated with a wide variety of authentic dishes, including jiaozi (饺子), ma po doufu (豆腐), winter melon (冬瓜) soup, spicy Sichuan (四川) hot pot, fried lotus root -- even the hard-to-stomach bitter melon (苦瓜) -- your typical all-you-can-eat buffet just doesn't cut the mustard anymore.

One of the best things, though, is that you will, if you show any sort of interest, learn how to prepare most of these foods yourself. Over the past two to three years, I've learned how to make many a dish.

Now, with a few exceptions, Chinese cooking is not too difficult. The right ingredients, however, can make all the difference. In my book, meeting "Grandma" was a godsend.

Lao Gan Ma (老干妈), or "Old Grandma", if I'm not mistaken, is a line of Chinese chili sauces and pastes that are just downright fantastic. I was introduced to Old Grandma by a friend of mine who had come over to the US from Shanghai. I had been told by my then-housemate (also Chinese) that she was a good cook, and knowing my penchant for spicy food, recommended that I go shopping with her at the local Chinese Asian market. We did one weekend, and as we went down the aisle that contained jars of vegetables I didn't recognise and sauces that I couldn't fathom, she began peering up and down the shelves, furiously searching for something amongst the chilis. Finally, she found it, and handed me a jar.

"This is "Lao Gan Ma" brand. It's one of the most popular chili sauces in my hometown. Get it!"

Who was I to argue?

Later on, we went back to her apartment, and she began to cook. When she was done, she opened a jar and asked me to make some dipping sauce for the dumplings. I peered inside the jar...

I'm not quite sure what makes up the bulk of these chili sauces. It looks to be ground up, fried chilis, drowned in some sort of cooking oil. There may be some soy sauce in there, too. It's crunchy, oily when you scoop it out of the jar -- and it's absolutely astounding when you taste it.

There are several variations in the Lao Gan Ma line. In addition to the plain chilis in oil, you can get sauces that contain red bean, as well ones that contains bits of chicken, beef, and even fish, presumably for use in meals that contains those particular ingredients. There are apparently others, too, but I've never seen them.

As it stands, it's pretty hard to find the Lao Gan Ma chilis in the first place. The only Asian market in the DC area where I've seen it is at the Kam Sam Chinese Market, in Annandale.

If you're a fan of hot peppers (辣椒), though, especially in your Chinese food, it's worth the hunt. I doubt you'll ever want anything else. Hao chi (好吃)!

Search Tips for finding Lao Gan Ma:
  • For visual aid (and perhaps textual, if you are zhongwen-inclined), visit the Lao Gan Ma webpage:
    http://www.laoganma.com.cn/web2.htm
  • I have only found one place to order it online:
    http://www.orientalfoodmaster.com - Query for "Lao Gan Ma"
    Note: It is somewhat pricy here... I found it for 99 cents in the store.
  • Finally, if you are fortunate enough to live in the DC area, go and get it at Kam Sam:
    4316 Markham St Annandale, VA 703-658-2550

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