This Is My New Favorite Condiment And I Want Everyone To Try It
These are the four main “heat” sources that I use in my kitchen. (From left: Lao Gui Yang Chili Sauce; the ubiquitous Cock brand Sriracha; some dried phrik khi nu or ”mouse turd” chilis that my friend brought me from Thailand, and which I keep in a jar that once held peach butter; Lee Kum Kee Fine Chili Sauce.) By far and away my favorite is the Lao Gui Yang, which I discovered by chance just three months ago.
Before I start gushing about this stuff, I need to put that bottle of Sriracha into context. I only really keep Sriracha in the house because my husband likes it. I don’t hate it, I don’t think it’s awful, but I have a couple of issues with it. First, leading as it does with this big punch of vinegar and then trailing off all hollow, I find it to be poorly balanced. It has no legs. Second, I’ve gotten so sick of seeing it where it doesn’t belong, namely in Chinese restaurants that should know better, that I can barely stand to look at it.
Hot sauce is about far more than just heat. (If I want to add pure heat to a dish without disturbing the flavor, I reach for those mouse turd chili seeds.) It’s also about acid and smoke and sugar and salt, which join forces with the capsaicin to produce distinct and varied flavors. Different foods call for different blends, and I happen to think that most Chinese food calls for a blend other than Sriracha.
Hey, if we can have hardcore terroir-ists who insist that “what grows together goes together,” then it shouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that the most harmonious condiment pairings are the time-honored ones, too.
Unless I’m the one breaking the rules. Then it’s perfectly fine.
Yeah, I don’t know what to tell you. I guess I’m a total hypocrite, because the first time I opened a jar of Lao Gui Yang Chili Sauce, I smeared it on a fresh-mozz slice from Luigi’s. It was pretty spectacular.
Of course, I had no reference points for this sauce, because I’d never tried it before. (I picked it off the shelf at Fei Long Market in Sunset Park on complete whim, on a night when I was expecting a Thai visitor and felt I needed to offer her something hot.) It’s not a Cantonese thing–Lao Gui Yang means “old Gui Yang,” Gui Yang being the capital of Guizhou province, which adjoins Sichuan to the north and Yunnan to the West. They like pickles there, the sourest and most pungent pickles, and I think there’s some of that in this sauce, in tiny dice.
I say “I think” because, as with so many imported Chinese condiments, the list of ingredients (the one in English, anyway, which is the only one I can read) is remarkably vague. I don’t know what gaping FDA loophole allows for this, but every time I’ve bought jars of hot sauce studded with anything from roasted nuts to dried favas, those ingredients have been grouped under the blanket heading of “other condiments,” which is so recursive it’s almost painful to think about. So I’m guessing that there’s dried chili in there, and roasted chili. Then there’s minced garlic and ginger, some sugar, those mystery pickle parts, and who knows what else besides–all adding up to this incredibly smoky, robust and lingering ambrosia that I’ll sometimes eat straight out of the jar. Because the one thing it’s not, despite appearances, is too terribly hot.
If I want it a little hotter, I’ll mix it with the Lee Kum Kee Fine Chili Sauce you saw in the first photo, which is a bit like Sriracha in tartness and consistency, but has a wonderful depth that comes from the addition of salted plum powder. (For a totally different use of salted plum powder, go see David at Quarter Bar in South Slope and have him make you his tongue-in-cheek Chinese margarita, the Rita Lee.) As-is, I add it to marinades, stir it into my beaten eggs before I dredge chicken for frying, and plop it in obscene quantities onto sticky rice dumplings.
If you can get yourself to a big Chinese grocery, I urge you to scour the aisles for a jar of this stuff, or indeed any unsung hot sauce that catches your eye. There’s more to life than Sriracha.