Some emerging brands, however, have used the lauded chili crisp as inspiration and are making more modern takes on the beloved condiment. Take the lauded Sichuan Chili Crisp bottled by Fly By Jing. Founder and chef Jenny Gao wanted to recreate her own version of the condiment while keeping healthy, natural ingredients in mind. This meant no MSG, no preservatives, and no additives.
“Lao Gan Ma is the stalwart chili sauce in China; it is made in the Guizhou province and uses Guizho chilis, soybean oil, MSG, and preservatives," says Gao. "It is tasty, and what I grew up eating. But when I started delving deep into cooking and ingredient-sourcing, I became a lot more thoughtful about what I was putting into my body and realized that by using high quality ingredients, you can make food that is good for you and tastes far, far better.”
Gao’s version of chili crisp relies on the meaty, umami flavors of mushrooms and seaweed. The sauce also specifically highlights Sichuan flavors rather than Guizhou flavors like Lao Gan Ma, using what is called the tribute pepper -- a rare, fragrant variety of Sichuan pepper that is historically known for being offered as a tribute to Chinese emperors -- and cold-pressed rapeseed oil high in antioxidants and nutty in flavor.
“Chinese foods that [are] available on the market [are] usually cheap, filled with additives and preservatives, and [feed] into people's perceptions of Chinese food being low quality and undesirable,” Gao said. It’s something that’s aggravating -- and a misconception that broadly paints Chinese food as an unhealthy monolith.
“This [is] a self-fulfilling cycle, because if people [aren’t] willing to pay more for Chinese food products, manufacturers are not incentivized to use better quality ingredients, and will need to lean on preservatives and MSG as a cheap crutch which leads to inferior flavor," she explains. Gao’s mission is to disrupt these false narratives about Chinese food, one condiment at a time.
Side-by-side, it’s apparent that the pair of chili crisps taste different (though both of them are absolutely delicious). Gao’s reinterpretation is spicier from the Sichuan peppers and definitely possesses a deep mushroom flavor. The oil is much darker -- almost black in the jar -- whereas Lao Gan Ma’s is a bright orange, derived from soybean. The ratio of oil to crisp was also way different. I found that Lao Gan Ma’s onion, garlic, and chili chunks were larger, making it a bit crispier; it’s what I would reach for if I definitely wanted more texture and less oil.
You can purchase bottles of Lao Gan Ma for around $3 at your local Walmart or in a family-sized jar on Amazon for a little over $12.50. Bottles of Fly By Jing’s Sichuan Chili Crisp has a bit of a steeper price tag at $15 per bottle and can be purchased on their website. There are other chili crisps to explore as well: William Sonoma carries a version called Mister Jiu’s that is a collaboration with the San Francisco restaurant of the same name, and there’s also a Japanese version known as la-yu.
And if you can’t make up your mind on which one to get, you can always get crafty and try making you own.