The first non-standard-condiment I remember digging lay in the Chevy’s Fresh Mex chain of restaurants, which started in Alameda, CA back in 1981. Their salsa which they included with their freshly fried batch of tortilla chips was a revelation, equal parts chunky and chewy, spicy and savory – it was tough to NOT overload on chips while waiting for your main food orders came to your table.
Since then, the flood gates have been open in regard to various hot sauces, salsas, and other condiments that were at one time not almost impossible to find in the standard grocery store. My spouse and I have had our periods where one of them has ruled the roost in regards to favorite accompaniment to the main meal, but lately, that honor has fallen into the realm of the Spicy Chili Crisp.
The Spicy Chili Crisp, whose base template consists of chili flakes, oil, garlic, and various spices, is actually a relatively recent phenomenon. More likely than not, the brand most people are familiar with is the Lao Gan Ma brand. Its founder, Tao Haubi, soon figured out that it was the chili crisp sauce she coated her noodle dishes that her diners were enjoying versus the noodles underneath. Soon after that realization, she began bottling the sauce starting in 1997, and the rest as you can say is history. Chili crisp might be the hottest condiment of the moment, with articles such as this one in Delish.com calling it “The New Sriracha.“
Trust us, we do love Lao Gan Ma, but we have seen numerous ads and other mentions of so-called gourmet chili crisps from other enterprising folks who want to gain a foothold in this burgeoning market. So we thought, what of these contenders? Could they handle the torch that was lit by Lao Gan Ma, or would they flop over in comparison like an overboiled cache of noodles?
A Word About the O.G.
In many ways, you can satisfy your chili crisp needs from just Lao Gan Ma products, due to their extensive product line. Along with their Spicy Chili Crisp, Lao Gan Ma offers (Chili Oil with Black Bean, Chili Oil with Fermented Soybeans, Hot Chili Sauce, and Fried Chili in Oil, with slightly different ingredients and texture variations. Also, all the condiments are reasonably priced (between $3 to $10, depending on style and size of the jar, at Saraga International Market.)
For us, we’ve enjoyed the Fried Chili in Oil the most, as much for texture (plenty of crispy bits) as taste. That taste is pretty distinct as well, with the Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) lending a pop of umami I’ve had many a time in Chinese food over my life, and it’s definitely a condiment we’re not afraid to put on pretty much anything right now.
The one big difference we found between Lao Gan Ma and the gourmet brands we sampled was in the use of preservatives (sulfur dioxide and sodium sulfite, for the Fried Chili in Oil) and the MSG. MSG has been the source of controversy as the source of so-called “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”, which was first reported on in 1968. From all that I’ve read, the fear of it has been massively overhyped, as there are a number of sources of glutamate in natural and processed foods.
However, if you do have a legitimate specific MSG sensitivity, we are happy to report that none of the gourmet brands we tried have MSG, using natural sources of glutamate like seaweed, yeast extract and mushroom powder to get the umami effects in its stead. The gourmet chili crisps also do not have preservatives, if that is important to you.
THE CONTENDERS (Round 1)
We ended up buying four brands that we had heard through a variety of sources (ads, podcasts, Instagram follows etc.) and we would also include our Fried Chili Crisp from Lao Gan Ma as the baseline condiment.
Our judging was three-fold – first was a look at the contents inside the jar, taking into account the oil to crisp ratio. We followed that with a sampling of the condiment itself, without any adornments, followed by the final stage, where we would taste the chili crisp with some food item. After some thinking, we decided that this item shouldn’t get in the way of the chili crisp, so we decided a fairly mild-flavored dumpling would be perfect (in this case, Japanese Gyoza.)
Now, for the contenders, in alphabetical order…
Chilipino (IG: Chilipino)
Price Paid: $8 per jar plus shipping (various shipping costs per number of jars)
Notes: This is the outlier of the group: not only is this a home kitchen product, but also the owner Jenny has Filipino heritage – Chili crisp isn’t typically thought of a Filipino condiment, unlike fish sauce, banana ketchup and a variety of vinegars – Originally based out of San Gabriel, the business has relocated to Berkeley, CA – Out of the gourmet chili crisps, this jar ekes out the top spot in terms of the quantity (with that said, none of them come close size-wise to the off-the-shelf Lao Gan Ma offerings) – The oil-to-crisp ratio is nicely weighted to the crisp (we’ve found about 1/8″ to 1/4″ thick oil layer in the jars we’ve opened), but compared to the others, the crisp is the least crispy; perhaps the product’s labeling as a “Chili Garlic Oil” explains this – The overall flavor is more deep and savory, probably due to the presence of soy sauce, which none of the other chili crisps have – We thought this would be an especially good pairing with some of the more richer Filipino-prepared meats and silog dishes – Chilipino’s product is vegan; the owner is looking into developing a gluten-free version in the future.
Ingredients of Note: Soy Sauce, Thai Chilies, Garlic, Sichuan Peppercorns, Mushroom Blend
Fly By Jing (IG: flybyjing)
Price Paid: $15 per jar (a discount applies if you 4 or 6 jars at one time)
Notes: Business owner Jing Gao was born in Chengdu, originally starting her working career in corporate finance. However, she quit that life to open a restaurant back in her hometown, inspiring her to launch a highly successful Kickstarter campaign in 2019. Along with Chili Crisp, Zhong Sauce and Mala Spice Mix are also available – If you’re into tons of crispy bits, this isn’t the jar for you; the ratio we got in our jar was an even split between oil and crisp (I’m really not sure if we got an anomalous jar or not, or if this is the normal ratio) – However, what crisp we did get was nicely crispy – The oil had a pleasant amount of heat and the ma la sensation, topping the group of four on both counts – For us, this flavor profile was as bright as Chilipino’s was deep; it’s probably no surprise that they ended up neck-and-neck in terms of our eventual final list – For us, if it came down to these two, we think it would simply depend on the item being topped. – Fly By Jing’s product is vegan, gluten-free, and sugar-free.
Ingredients of Note: Non-GMO Rapeseed and Soybean oils, Fermented Black Bean, Garlic, Mushroom Powder and Seaweed
Momofuku (IG: momolongplay)
Price Paid: $12/jar ($10/jar if you order two or more; free shipping for a $30 or more order)
Notes: This Chili Crisp created by Chef David Chang is easily the most complex of the chili crisps we sampled – We thought we detected a bit of fish sauce initially (the flavor actually comes from the seaweed, best we can figure) and a little sweet (coconut sugar) before the heat (puya & japones chiles) and umami – This chili crisp also packs a whole lot of crunch, with crispy shallots, sesame seeds and dried garlic, among other things – Upon further reading, this crisp’s seeming uniqueness reflects its development history, as the initial renditions of this were said to resemble Mexican creations like Salsa Macha and Salsa Seca – In a weird way, this product feels so gourmet to us, it seems like it should be reserved for more special creations versus your average Sunday fried eggs (obviously, the creators would prefer that you use it in an everyday manner)- Momofuku’s chili crisp is Vegan and Gluten Free.
Mr. Bing (IG: mrbingnyc)
Price: $11.99/jar (higher discounts the more jars you order; free shipping w/3 or more jars)
Notes: Mr. Bing’s chili crisp is the only product not created by an Asian/Asian-American owner – Owners Brian Goldberg and Ben Duvall both met each other and discovered their love of Chili Crisp via their studies in China and their sampling of street food (specifically the Jian Bing) – This Chili Crisp matches Chilipino in terms of the ingredient simplicity scale (9 total ingredients) but couldn’t be more different; their chili crisp is probably the least intensely colored in the bunch – Despite the ingredient simplicity, Mr. Bing spots a fairly complex flavor profile, having a distinct sweet component (via Turbinado Sugar) – When the jar says mild, they do mean mild; those who have an adverse reaction to spicy heat might find this the perfect product – For certified spiceheads like us, we’re rating Mr. Bing as an “incomplete” for now, as we would like to grab the spicy rendition for a go-around – Mr. Bing is Gluten-Free and Vegan.
For everyday use and for most home cooks, Lao Gan Ma chili crisp products will more than fill the bill. Compared to their gourmet counterparts, they are far cheaper and, as long as you have a decent Asian and/or International store in your neighborhood, probably easier to grab a hold of in a last-minute type situation.
However, there is more enough room in the market for their gourmet counterparts. Their umami component is gained from a number of ingredients which contain natural glutamates (seaweed, yeast extract, mushrooms, etc.), which lend their chili crisp a lot more complexity. While the fears about MSG have largely been overblown, these types of chili crisps are a godsend for those who really do sport a significant sensitivity. Also, if you don’t live near a store with a wide selection of Asian-style goods, ordering jars direct from these vendors and having the delivered straight to your door can be advantageous. Last but certainly not least, with many of these products, the money is staying local to a region or, especially in the case of Chilipino, you may be supporting a small business owner with your purchase.
And lest we forget, food is all about exploration, and we’ve been excited to explore what is out there in the food world. Barring something unforeseen, there definitely will be a Chili Crisp-Off, Volume 2.
Until then, happy eating to you all!