A jar that makes all festive snacks, brunches and lunches taste better

Shelf Help: A store cupboard condiment that’s hot stuff but addictive

What is it? Lao Gan Ma Chicken Flavour Chilli Oil with Tofu (€3.95, 280g).

What’s good about it? Lao Gan Ma Crispy Chilli in Oil became a lockdown bestseller, with online retailer Sous Chef seeing its sales increase by a staggering 1,900 per cent in 2021. This version, which is similar to the original, but with the addition of tiny cubes of tofu, as well as “chicken seasoning”, was recommended to me by Suzie Lee Arbuthnot, BBC and RTÉ TV presenter and author of Simply Chinese: Recipes from a Chinese Home Kitchen. It too is a rough textured paste, rather than an oil, despite the name.

How do I use it? Drizzled over eggs (especially good with fried eggs), stirred into rice or noodles, as a marinade, or in a dipping sauce for dumplings. It is also good with stir fries and adds a bit of zing to a roast chicken or turkey sandwich. If you find it too spicy, try it stirred into mayo. Diehard fans eat the original version as an ice cream topping. There is a version with preserved black beans that is also popular.

Who makes it? Lao Gan Ma means old godmother. The founder of the company, Tao Huabi, is a self-made billionaire, who churns out 1.3 million jars of the stuff each year (for context, 1.8 million bottles of Heinz Ketchup are produced annually).


Where can I buy it? Most Asian stores will have it in stock, and if you don’t have one nearby, you can buy it online from asiamarket.ie.

Anything else? Both versions also have flavour enhancer E621, perhaps better known as monosodium glutamate. If this is a concern, you might prefer to make a batch of chef Christine Walsh’s homemade rayu, the recipe for which is online at irishtimes.com. It’s not the same, but will give a similar chilli heat hit.

Send your suggestions to marieclaire.digby@irishtimes.com