A couple of weeks ago I read this Serious Eats article, "Where to Buy Chinese Ingredients in New York City” (http://newyork.seriouseats.com/2010/0...), and it got me thinking – of all the wonderful posts on the board, it seems nobody has written about the TWO CHINESE CONDIMENTS I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT! So here is my public service announcement about these two miracle ingredients that will elevate your Chinese food to new heights:
1. Wuan Chuang Soy Sauce: Black Bean Nature Brewed
I know what you’re thinking, what’s so special about soy sauce, the most ubiquitous Chinese condiment there is?! This is what I thought too, until I read about this 100-year-old soy sauce company in Xiluo, Taiwan, which still brews all its soy sauces by age-old recipes, adding its trade secret fermentation starter by hand, and aging the brew in gigantic terra cotta urns under the sun for 4-6 months before filtering and completing the final product. The ingredient list is short: black beans, water, salt, and sugar – that’s it! No preservatives, no alcohol (which is surprisingly in a lot of soy sauces), and no wheat so you can still enjoy it if you’re allergic to wheat. (They also have a soy bean and wheat soy sauce, which I haven’t tried. But the black bean product does not have wheat.)
But most importantly, it tastes GREAT! I never thought I would even be able to tell the difference between soy sauces, but as soon as you open this bottle, you smell a rich aroma that comes from the naturally brewed black beans. Pour it out and you will notice that this soy sauce is more viscous than its mass market competitors. And the taste is rich and complex, not too salty, with a slight sweetness at the end. We’ve done blind smell and taste tests at home with this soy sauce and a Wei Chuan soy sauce that also claims to be “naturally brewed.” The Wei Chuan product has alcohol as an ingredient and, when compared with the Wuan Chuang, has an astringent odor when you take a whiff. It also tastes saltier and flatter compared with the Wuan Chuang. The difference is really startling, like the difference between a good, extra virgin olive oil that tastes like spring and smells of fruit, and a cheap olive oil from the corner minimart that tastes like, well, nothing.
When I first read about this brand on a Taiwanese blog, I thought casually, “That’s great, but I’ll never find out how it tastes because they won’t have it in the U.S.” But a couple of weeks ago, I found it at the new Great Wall Supermarket on Northern Blvd. in Flushing. Dumplings are AMAZING with nothing but this soy sauce. Taiwanese meat sauce (rou-zao) made with this sauce is a deep color and tastes rich and flavorful as if it had chocolate in it. And I could eat bowls of plain white rice with just this soy sauce and a few dashes of sesame oil. And this is just their everyday line. Next time I go to Taiwan I am getting a few bottles of their 正宗白曝醬油, handmade in limited quantities in summertime only, each batch taking over a year to finish, and only available directly through the factory.
2. Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Sauce
Again, an ingredient I read about on a Taiwanese food board (kind of like this one), then discovered at my local Queens Chinese grocery store. That was about 5 years ago, and since then my husband and I can’t live without this hot sauce. “Lao Gan Ma” means loosely, “Old Godmother,” named after the founder, whose stern face appears on every bottle. Because of her expression, we’ve dubbed it “Mean Woman Sauce” in our household.
I kid you not when I say that this sauce goes with just about anything. Dumplings are great with this (if you want yours spicy), so are rice, noodles, stir fries, blanched vegetables, and even Western dishes like baked squash, rotisserie chickens, and pizzas. (And I admit, a few times I just sat there and ate straight out of the jar.) It’s hard to describe exactly what this tastes like – it’s spicy, but also a little salty, a little sweet, and a little crunchy. For those Sriracha chili sauce fans out there, I say to you: you are totally missing out if you think that Sriracha is the best hot sauce there is.
I should have known that this product is popular with the Chinese population by the fact that it is found in almost every Chinese grocery store. However, this fact really hit me in late 2007/early 2008, when all of a sudden, Lao Gan Ma disappeared from all the grocery store shelves. All one could find were the numerous copycats – Old Godmom, Old Godfather, etc. We bought a couple of these but they tasted nothing like our beloved Mean Woman. We asked everywhere – in Manhattan, in Brooklyn, in Chicago, and even asked my family in Hong Kong and Sichuan – but no sightings. A store clerk in a Chicago told us that the supply stopped because the factory in Guizhou, China burned down. When they heard the news they had two cases of this sauce left in stock. They sold the 1st case at 150% the normal price, and it flew off the shelf. Then they sold their 2nd (and last case) at 200% the normal price, and it again flew off the shelf. This depressed us greatly. Apparently it’s no secret to anyone that this is the BEST hot sauce around, and now it was (for all we knew) gone forever, and there was probably not a single store in the U.S. that would have any in stock.
But then in 2009, Lao Gan Ma came back on the market, and is again available in just about every Chinese grocery store. Having gone a few sad months without it though, every time we finish a bottle we buy 2 more, just to stock up in case of another supply chain mishap. Because we can’t live without our Mean Woman.
—Bonus: My Recipe for Spicy Noodles—
So you need some inspiration for what to do with your newly acquired miracle ingredients? Let me share a simple dish we call simply, “Spicy Noodles,” which is a weeknight favorite for when we feel like comfort food but can’t be bothered to cook, developed in my own kitchen.
(1) Start by boiling some plain wheat noodles. I like this thin Shanghai style noodle from Twin Marquis, but really any white wheat noodles would do, like dry udon noodles.
(2) While the noodle is cooking, mix together in a bowl 1/2 Tbsp Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Sauce (or more or less, according to your preference), 1 Tbsp Wuan Chuang soy sauce, 1/2 Tbsp black vinegar, ½ tsp sugar. Finely chop some scallions, set aside.
(3) When the noodles are done, add the noodles to the bowl of condiments, and mix to combine well. If you like peanuts, adding ½ to 1 Tbsp of peanut powder at this point will give the noodles a thicker texture and a pleasant peanut flavor. Garnish with scallions and, if desired, a few dashes of Sichuan pepper corn powder.
**For a deluxe version, add Taiwanese meat sauce (rou-zao), preferably made with your Wuan Chuang soy sauce, to the noodles. The results rivals the dan-dan noodles of the late J&L Mall, if I do say so myself.**