The World of Chinese - - Contents - BY LIU JUE (刘珏)

It was once the poor man's sub­sti­tute for salt, but to­day, Szechuan sauce has even joined Mcdon­alds' pan­theon of dress­ings and dips. With sev­eral prov­inces renowned for numb­ing, sear­ing, and blis­ter­ing fla­vors, TWOC delves into hot sauces' pep­pery pasts and zesty fu­ture

S “ee­ing Amer­i­cans en­joy Sichuan spicy sauce so much, I feel proud, and also cu­ri­ous,” Mr. Fang, in his late 30s, told the Beijing Evening News when Mcdon­alds’ “Spe­cial Szechuan Sauce” fi­nally landed in China this April.

But af­ter tast­ing the in­fa­mous dip, which saw thousands of Amer­i­cans lin­ing up and brawl­ing in front of the fast food chain the pre­vi­ous year, Fang was baf­fled: “It’s not spicy at all, but overly sweet.” He was far from alone. On­line com­ments, es­pe­cially from Sichuan lo­cals, re­peated the sen­ti­ment. “It’s like hot pot soup with brown sugar, a taste you can’t quite de­scribe,” wrote one ne­ti­zen.

Mcdon­alds’ sauce was “Szechuan” in name only, as Chi­nese cus­tomers dis­cov­ered to their dis­ap­point­ment. More­over, its ini­tial pop­u­lar­ity had noth­ing to do with Chi­nese fla­vors “con­quer­ing the world,” as pa­tri­ots like Fang hoped. Rather, the craze was in­sti­gated by an episode of the pop­u­lar adult sci-fi an­i­ma­tion Rick and Morty, in which a time-trav­el­ing char­ac­ter ex­presses nos­tal­gia for a lim­it­ededi­tion sauce of­fered by Mcdon­alds in 1998, to pro­mote Dis­ney’s Mu­lan.

To make mat­ters even more con­fus­ing, Mu­lan is a leg­endary hero­ine from fifth-cen­tury cen­tral-east China (now He­nan prov­ince), and her story has noth­ing to do with ei­ther Sichuan or spice.

At least one Chi­nese chili sauce, though, has achieved le­git­i­mate at­ten­tion over­seas: Guizhou brand “Old God­mother,” or Laoganma (老干妈), is a house­hold name in China. It of­fers a range of clas­sic sauces from Spicy Chili Crisp to Black Bean Sauce, or douchi (豆豉), a tra­di­tional bean sauce made of fer­mented soy or black beans and chopped chili pep­pers.

Avail­able in al­most ev­ery Chi­nese su­per­mar­ket in the world (it re­tails for around nine USD a jar on Ama­zon), Laoganma even has a Face­book page, “The Lao Gan Ma Ap­pre­ci­a­tion So­ci­ety.” Ear­lier this year, Mia Leimkuh­ler, the editor of New York mag­a­zine’s e-com­merce ver­ti­cal, The Strate­gist, wrote that she “would panic with­out five jars of Laoganma’s Spicy Chili Crisp” in her pantry.

At first taste, Laoganma is quite dif­fer­ent from chili sauces that are al­ready in­ter­na­tion­ally known— vine­gar-based liq­uids such as Tabasco or Sriracha. In­stead, like many Chi­nese sauces, it’s a thick, oily paste with flakes of fried or pick­led chili pep­pers and other in­gre­di­ents like beans, peanuts, and meat. Chi­nese chili sauces are rarely overly spicy; it’s not the Scov­ille Units that make them spe­cial, but the over­all sa­vory taste.

This is partly be­cause Chi­nese chili sauce is eaten dif­fer­ently: Though


in some cases, it’s used for dip­ping, mostly it’s used in cook­ing or blended with rice or noo­dles to make a quick sa­vory snack. Laoganma’s nick­name is下饭神器 (“mag­i­cal rice-im­prov­ing de­vice”). For Chi­nese liv­ing or trav­el­ing aboard, a spoon­ful of it is a taste of home.

“You ask me how many coun­tries the sauce is sold in? I can only tell you, wher­ever there’s Chi­nese, there’s Laoganma,” the brand’s then 70-yearold founder Tao Huabi told China News in 2017. The story goes that, 29 years ago, a wid­owed Tao started a small diner sell­ing home­made cold noo­dles to pass­ing truck driv­ers in or­der to sup­port her two chil­dren, and added her own sauce to spice up the noo­dles.

Be­fore long, she re­al­ized the sauce was what was at­tract­ing her cus­tomers. In 1996, af­ter years of test­ing and prepa­ra­tion, Tao opened a fac­tory with 40 work­ers to man­u­fac­turer and bot­tle it. To­day, over two mil­lion bot­tles of Laoganma are sold daily, and Tao her­self is now a mem­ber of the Stand­ing Com­mit­tee of the Peo­ple’s Con­gress of Guizhou, not to men­tion a pop cul­ture icon: She was jok­ingly dubbed “China’s hottest woman,” and, by the post-90s gen­er­a­tion, the “god­dess of shut-in boys” (宅男女神).

While cur­rently the largest chilipro­duc­ing, con­sum­ing and ex­port­ing coun­try in the world, China in­cor­po­rated pep­pers to its palate rel­a­tively re­cently. Back in the 17th cen­tury, chilis, along with corn and sweet po­tato, made their way from Cen­tral Amer­ica to the south­east­ern coast of China via the Mar­itime Silk Road. In south­west China, chili is still called “sea pep­per” or 海椒, rather than “spicy pep­per” (辣椒) as in stan­dard Man­darin.

Even then, the chili was ini­tially seen as an or­na­men­tal plant. Nei­ther Sichuan nor Hu­nan—both prov­inces now fa­mous for their fiery food—were first to jump on the chili train. That honor be­longs to the re­mote hilly re­gion of Guizhou, the home of Laoganma, which, dur­ing the early Qing dy­nasty (1616 – 1911), was very much closed-off to the out­side world. More­over, a govern­ment mo­nop­oly had made salt ex­pen­sive and highly sought af­ter.

Ac­cord­ing to a lo­cal chron­i­cler, writ­ing in 1722, “Sea pep­per, which folks named ‘spicy fire,’ was used to re­place salt in the in­dige­nous Miao peo­ple’s diet.” The hot habit soon spread to ad­ja­cent Yun­nan and Hu­nan prov­inces. When the govern­ment en­cour­aged large-scale mi­gra­tion north­ward from Hu­nan to re­plen­ish the pop­u­la­tion af­ter lo­cal con­flicts, chilis fi­nally made it to Sichuan, where, grad­u­ally, they came to dom­i­nate the lo­cal diet.

Sichuan spices were pop­u­lar­ized by blue-col­lar work­ers whose daily diet of meat mainly in­cluded or­gans, chicken feet, goose in­testines, and other less sa­vory parts that were cast off from the slaugh­ter­house. Strong spices were used to cover any un­pleas­ant smell and turn th­ese rub­bery of­f­cuts into fla­vor­ful, chewy de­lights.

The powerful, of­ten numb­ing sen­sa­tion of chili drew un­fa­vor­able com­par­isons with the tastes of the wealthy and cul­tured class, rep­re­sented by Zhe­jiang cui­sine with its em­pha­sis on fresh in­gre­di­ents and nat­u­ral, del­i­cate fla­vors. Even to­day, there are food snobs who still view spicy sauce as a cheap, even un­healthy so­lu­tion to a work­ing-class crav­ing. It doesn’t help that Tra­di­tional Chi­nese Medicine also in­sists on a mys­te­ri­ous con­nec­tion be­tween eat­ing chili and “hav­ing in­ner fire” or 上火.

Folk cures in TCM ar­gue that when, tak­ing medicine, re­cov­er­ing from ill­ness, or even deal­ing with a wound, spicy food can cause such health to de­te­ri­o­rate, and should thus be avoided. Like many TCM claims, it is with­out much sci­en­tific ba­sis, but such an­cient as­so­ci­a­tions have ar­guably had a detri­men­tal ef­fect on the mod­ern spice’s stand­ing.

If Laoganma rep­re­sents the quin­tes­sen­tial Guizhou fla­vor (even though the brand only uses chili

pep­pers grown in He­nan, due to cost), then Pix­ian Bean Sauce (郫县豆瓣) is as­so­ci­ated with Sichuan. Now con­sid­ered part of China’s “in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage,” the sauce was in­vented in the mid-19th cen­tury by Chen Shouxin, and later pro­duced and sold in large quan­ti­ties. Un­like Laoganma’s oleagi­nous paste, Pix­ian Bean Sauce does not con­tain oil, but is bright red with finely chopped pep­pers and broad beans. It can be a dip­ping sauce, but more of­ten it is used in the prepa­ra­tion of a wide va­ri­ety of Sichuan dishes.

An­other Sichuanese spicy so­lu­tion is the pick­led chili pep­per, or pao­jiao (泡椒), which is made with thick, long pep­pers called er­jing­tiao (二荆条). The pep­pers stay bright af­ter pick­ling, and give a mild, gen­tle burn. Finely chopped and mixed with other in­gre­di­ents, the pao­jiao sauce is also re­spon­si­ble for the unique “fish fla­vor” (鱼香) that is as­so­ci­ated with Sichuan cui­sine.

Fi­nally, there is the clas­sic chili oil, or hongyou (红油, “red oil”) dried chili flakes and seeds steeped in peanut oil. Though ev­ery house­hold has its own recipe, this Sichuan es­sen­tial has made its way into nearly ev­ery small restau­rant in China.

The other chili-eat­ing prov­inces have their own hot sauces: Hu­nan fea­tures the chopped chili, or dou­jiao (剁椒), used to steam fish heads, a lo­cal del­i­cacy; Guangxi’s Guilin chili sauce uses gar­lic for added fla­vor. In the south­ern­most prov­ince of Hainan, a lo­cal yel­low bell pep­per sauce has made a name for it­self be­cause of its un­usu­ally high de­gree of spici­ness—150,000 Scov­illes.

While pep­pers are now the third most com­monly grown veg­etable in China af­ter cab­bage and po­tato, and ex­ported to coun­tries in­clud­ing the US and Canada, ac­cord­ing to the Chili In­dus­try Fo­rum in 2017, do­mes­tic pro­cess­ing is cur­rently fairly un­so­phis­ti­cated, mostly in­volv­ing lo­cal farm­ers dry­ing pep­pers un­der the sun and grind­ing them into chili pow­der.

In the mean­time, a large mar­ket is emerg­ing among the younger gen­er­a­tion for non-tra­di­tional spicy sauces they might have seen, tasted, or heard about from West­ern cul­ture. In 2016, three chili-lovers from the US and China opened a sauce shop and museum in Shang­hai called Hot Box. Stocked with over 85 dif­fer­ent hot sauces from all over the world, in­clud­ing its own ar­ti­sanal sauces, Hot Box is aim­ing to build China’s own “Pep­per Place” in a largely va­cant mar­ket, and has so far met with warm wel­come. In 2014, singer Allen Lin launched his own hot sauce brand tar­geted at young peo­ple, “Fanye”; it is now worth 360 mil­lion RMB. The fu­ture of chili sauce in China looks like it will only grow hot­ter.

Work­ers at the Xuanyuan Eco Farm in An­hui prov­ince make a spicy sauce in the lo­cal style

A farmer from An­hui prov­ince dries chili pep­pers dur­ing har­vest sea­son; Though they do not play a ma­jor role in An­hui cui­sine, the prov­ince is one of the largest chili pep­per-pro­duc­ing ar­eas in the coun­try

Hot Box, a hot sauce shop and museum, is gain­ing pop­u­lar­ity with young con­sumers in Shang­hai

Var­i­ous Sichuan-style hot sauces, in­clud­ing pick­led chili pep­pers and red oil, are usu­ally of­fered at hot pot restau­rants and buf­fets

China’s most fa­mous hot sauce,Laoganma, is on the shelves of al­most ev­ery su­per­mar­ket; its icon fea­tures a por­trait of its founder, Tao Huabi

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