Two Chinese Condiments for the Gourmet Home Cook
A couple of weeks ago I read this Serious Eats article, "Where to Buy Chinese Ingredients in New York City” (http://newyork.seriouseats.com/2010/0...), and it got me thinking – of all the wonderful posts on the board, it seems nobody has written about the TWO CHINESE CONDIMENTS I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT! So here is my public service announcement about these two miracle ingredients that will elevate your Chinese food to new heights:
1. Wuan Chuang Soy Sauce: Black Bean Nature Brewed
I know what you’re thinking, what’s so special about soy sauce, the most ubiquitous Chinese condiment there is?! This is what I thought too, until I read about this 100-year-old soy sauce company in Xiluo, Taiwan, which still brews all its soy sauces by age-old recipes, adding its trade secret fermentation starter by hand, and aging the brew in gigantic terra cotta urns under the sun for 4-6 months before filtering and completing the final product. The ingredient list is short: black beans, water, salt, and sugar – that’s it! No preservatives, no alcohol (which is surprisingly in a lot of soy sauces), and no wheat so you can still enjoy it if you’re allergic to wheat. (They also have a soy bean and wheat soy sauce, which I haven’t tried. But the black bean product does not have wheat.)
But most importantly, it tastes GREAT! I never thought I would even be able to tell the difference between soy sauces, but as soon as you open this bottle, you smell a rich aroma that comes from the naturally brewed black beans. Pour it out and you will notice that this soy sauce is more viscous than its mass market competitors. And the taste is rich and complex, not too salty, with a slight sweetness at the end. We’ve done blind smell and taste tests at home with this soy sauce and a Wei Chuan soy sauce that also claims to be “naturally brewed.” The Wei Chuan product has alcohol as an ingredient and, when compared with the Wuan Chuang, has an astringent odor when you take a whiff. It also tastes saltier and flatter compared with the Wuan Chuang. The difference is really startling, like the difference between a good, extra virgin olive oil that tastes like spring and smells of fruit, and a cheap olive oil from the corner minimart that tastes like, well, nothing.
When I first read about this brand on a Taiwanese blog, I thought casually, “That’s great, but I’ll never find out how it tastes because they won’t have it in the U.S.” But a couple of weeks ago, I found it at the new Great Wall Supermarket on Northern Blvd. in Flushing. Dumplings are AMAZING with nothing but this soy sauce. Taiwanese meat sauce (rou-zao) made with this sauce is a deep color and tastes rich and flavorful as if it had chocolate in it. And I could eat bowls of plain white rice with just this soy sauce and a few dashes of sesame oil. And this is just their everyday line. Next time I go to Taiwan I am getting a few bottles of their 正宗白曝醬油, handmade in limited quantities in summertime only, each batch taking over a year to finish, and only available directly through the factory.
2. Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Sauce
Again, an ingredient I read about on a Taiwanese food board (kind of like this one), then discovered at my local Queens Chinese grocery store. That was about 5 years ago, and since then my husband and I can’t live without this hot sauce. “Lao Gan Ma” means loosely, “Old Godmother,” named after the founder, whose stern face appears on every bottle. Because of her expression, we’ve dubbed it “Mean Woman Sauce” in our household.
I kid you not when I say that this sauce goes with just about anything. Dumplings are great with this (if you want yours spicy), so are rice, noodles, stir fries, blanched vegetables, and even Western dishes like baked squash, rotisserie chickens, and pizzas. (And I admit, a few times I just sat there and ate straight out of the jar.) It’s hard to describe exactly what this tastes like – it’s spicy, but also a little salty, a little sweet, and a little crunchy. For those Sriracha chili sauce fans out there, I say to you: you are totally missing out if you think that Sriracha is the best hot sauce there is.
I should have known that this product is popular with the Chinese population by the fact that it is found in almost every Chinese grocery store. However, this fact really hit me in late 2007/early 2008, when all of a sudden, Lao Gan Ma disappeared from all the grocery store shelves. All one could find were the numerous copycats – Old Godmom, Old Godfather, etc. We bought a couple of these but they tasted nothing like our beloved Mean Woman. We asked everywhere – in Manhattan, in Brooklyn, in Chicago, and even asked my family in Hong Kong and Sichuan – but no sightings. A store clerk in a Chicago told us that the supply stopped because the factory in Guizhou, China burned down. When they heard the news they had two cases of this sauce left in stock. They sold the 1st case at 150% the normal price, and it flew off the shelf. Then they sold their 2nd (and last case) at 200% the normal price, and it again flew off the shelf. This depressed us greatly. Apparently it’s no secret to anyone that this is the BEST hot sauce around, and now it was (for all we knew) gone forever, and there was probably not a single store in the U.S. that would have any in stock.
But then in 2009, Lao Gan Ma came back on the market, and is again available in just about every Chinese grocery store. Having gone a few sad months without it though, every time we finish a bottle we buy 2 more, just to stock up in case of another supply chain mishap. Because we can’t live without our Mean Woman.
—Bonus: My Recipe for Spicy Noodles—
So you need some inspiration for what to do with your newly acquired miracle ingredients? Let me share a simple dish we call simply, “Spicy Noodles,” which is a weeknight favorite for when we feel like comfort food but can’t be bothered to cook, developed in my own kitchen.
(1) Start by boiling some plain wheat noodles. I like this thin Shanghai style noodle from Twin Marquis, but really any white wheat noodles would do, like dry udon noodles.
(2) While the noodle is cooking, mix together in a bowl 1/2 Tbsp Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Sauce (or more or less, according to your preference), 1 Tbsp Wuan Chuang soy sauce, 1/2 Tbsp black vinegar, ½ tsp sugar. Finely chop some scallions, set aside.
(3) When the noodles are done, add the noodles to the bowl of condiments, and mix to combine well. If you like peanuts, adding ½ to 1 Tbsp of peanut powder at this point will give the noodles a thicker texture and a pleasant peanut flavor. Garnish with scallions and, if desired, a few dashes of Sichuan pepper corn powder.
**For a deluxe version, add Taiwanese meat sauce (rou-zao), preferably made with your Wuan Chuang soy sauce, to the noodles. The results rivals the dan-dan noodles of the late J&L Mall, if I do say so myself.**
Thanks for this hearty, informative post. I imagine that fire to have been raging red and monstrous, abetted by all the chili oil, but hope there were no worker casualties. Laoganma's black bean chili sauce is a staple in my kitchen. I've never tried other varieties, though. Are you referring to the black bean or one of the other condiments under this label (http://www.laoganma.com.cn/english/e_...)? Thanks!
The other day and I happened to glance at the nutrition info on my jar of lao gan ma. I thought there was an impossibly large amount of fat and carbohydrate listed. Then I noticed the serving size: 1 cup! My, those Chinese sure do like it spicy... :>
No idea how I missed this either. For a wonderful soy sauce try Wan Ja Shan. Taiwanese company who in the 1970's opened a plant in New York - the only Taiwanese soy sauce made in the USA. I love their Premium Soy Sauce - they also carry Organic as well as other products. Certainly available in Flushing. I've bought it at both the supermarket below the New World Mall (Roosevelt and Main Street) and the one across the street from Main Street Imperial, the Taiwanese restaurant around 60th and Main Street.
I'm also a big fan of Wan Ja Shan, especially their aged soy sauce with the green label. I can find it at various Asian stores in Queens (like the ones you mentioned) but I used to pick it up at Kam Man on Canal Street and I haven't seen it there in months - no idea why. It's great.
Taiwanese for sure - their products have been available in the USA for at least 30-40 years. Frankly I do try "buy Taiwan" for food safety reasons. It seems like we are all just waiting for the shoe to drop on the same folks that brought us melanin, fake eggs and more. What do they have in store for us next?
Lao Gan Ma and Wuan Chuang are both available at the larger Asian markets here in Albany. I agree the Wuan Chuang is a step up from most any soya sauce I've ever had. To my tongue the black bean element gives it a rich, more complex taste with overtones of miso.
Fine print at the bottom of the label identifies the hot sauce as "Spicy Chili Crisp" and it's plenty hot, but with lots of extra flavor besides the heat. I have enjoyed it very much and find it works well on a wide variety of foods. My thanks to Arete for bringing this one to my attention.
I've been frequenting Asian grocers, collecting Asian cookbooks, & cooking Asian dishes since the mid-70's.
Have only TWO pantry ingredients that I would consider indispensible:
1. Huy Fong's Chili Garlic Sauce
2. Chinese preserved black beans
I would definitely feel a bit lost without having these two special ingredients always on hand. Everything else that I use regularly I could either do without or wing with something else.
Thank You!! I always had some Lao Gan Ma Chili in Oil in my fridge, and was really sad when I couldn't find it anymore. Not having a jar to reference or knowing how to describe it beyond the chili oil and peanuts, I had all but given up hope that I would find it again. I've spent many sad minutes searching the aisles of many an asian grocery store in hope I might rediscover it.
I got a hankering again this week, and, having never googled it before, discovered your post, the story of the factory and hope that I might have access to this wonderful product again.
Bright and early the next morning, I made my way to the 99 Ranch near my house, and spent 10 minutes searching the shelves... and seeing only the bean sauce. Oh No! But, after sadly wandering a bit further down the isle, I discover that, not only is there plenty in stock, but it's on sale! Under $2 a jar for this! Awesome! I bought four jars. I couldnt help myself. I might give it as gifts to a few friends who I've told about it and had not idea what I was talking about. They think Sriracha holds the crown... pish.
I bought some Dim Sum during my visit (Love that, too! A Dim Sum Buffet in the store!) and immediately enjoyed a bit of this wonderful, amazing hot sauce. Tonight, my dinner is white rice, steamed Broccoli, and Lao Gan Ma Chili in Oil.
"I always had some Lao Gan Ma Chili in Oil in my fridge, and was really sad when I couldn't find it anymore. Not having a jar to reference or knowing how to describe it beyond the chili oil and peanuts, I had all but given up hope that I would find it again. I've spent many sad minutes searching the aisles of many an asian grocery store in hope I might rediscover it."
This may solve your conundrum :-D