McDonald's recently brought back its famous Szechuan dipping sauce after the popular cartoon Rick and Morty featured the food in one of its episodes. The teriyaki-flavored sauce was welcomed with open mouths by Americans, many lining up for hours at their local McDonald's to gobble up the limited-edition albeit incorrectly named sauce. But among those who appreciate true Chinese cuisine in all its abundance of flavors and spices, what do foreigners think of authentic Chinese chili sauces?
(From left) Askari, Stephanie and Katie Photos: Chen Xia/GT
Variety is the spice of life
The Global Times recently invited three Americans (Stephanie, Askari and Katie) to our kitchen to taste several kinds of Chinese-brand chili sauces. In between wiping the sweat off their faces and guzzling glasses of milk to neutralize the spiciness, they commented on the flavor and heat-level of each sauce, and also compared the differences between Western and Chinese hot-sauces.
(From above) A variety of chili sauces
Lao Gan Ma chili sauce
The first thing that the three participants noticed was a middle-aged woman's face on the bottle's label. The woman is Tao Huabi, the creator of China's most famous chili sauce, known in English as "Old Godmother."
Askari told the Global Times that the woman looks so sad that it seems that if people don't buy her chili sauce, her family might starve and live a poor life. "Usually we see smiling people on packages, but she is so sad that I'll probably buy it out of guilt," he said in jest.
"I would definitely buy it, because she is good-looking," Stephanie said. "But she does look sad, so I think if she smiles maybe she could sell more products." But Katie felt the photo was a good choice. "She looks sad, but I trust her. I feel like she is the authority on chili sauce."
Katie also pointed out this brand of chili sauce is well-known among foreigners in China. "I have heard of a lot of foreigners talking about this brand, like saying when they go back to their home country this is the one they miss the most," she told the Global Times.
Our foreigners then dipped some chips into the sauce. Stephanie was the first, and she liked the flavor. "But it is a bit oily," she commented. Similarly, Askari said it does taste oily, but its flavor is still pretty good.
In terms of the hotness of this sauce, each of the participants said it was actually not that spicy. "I can barely taste any spice," Askari said. On a spicy scale of one to 10, all of them gave "Old Godmother" a two.
Chuan Xiang pork-flavor chili sauce
Chinese brand Chuan Xiang was founded in 1920 in Shanghai.
The brown color of this sauce caught the foreigners' attention. Stephanie suggested that it looks more like chocolate sauce. But once they tasted it, they were surprised by its saltiness.
"It is like chili plus olive oil plus salt. The first flavor I tasted was salt and then spice. But the spice lasts only a second or two," Askari said. Likewise, Katie noted the only flavor she tasted was saltiness, and that this sauce was not spicy.
The three Americans also pointed out that this sauce was oilier than they expected. "It is interesting how much oil there is [in Chinese sauces] compared to American chili," Askari told the Global Times.
Though it is pork-flavored, neither Askari nor Stephanie could smell or taste any pork. In terms of spiciness, both Askari and Katie gave it a three; Stephanie a four.
Zhang Shi Ji pod pepper chili sauce
Upon seeing the bright-red color of this sauce, our participants became quite excited. "It does look spicier than the others, because it is so red," Katie said. Stephanie added this sauce might be her favorite, as it looks spicy enough.
Stephanie was the first to try. "I am a bit nervous as I want to get a big chunk of the sauce. But what if it is really spicy," she said. Askari was more cautious and only dipped a small amount.
In terms of taste, Stephanie said the sauce burnt her tongue. "I'm actually ashamed. I am Latina and I should handle very spicy stuff. But the sauce is burning my tongue right now," she said before downing a glass of milk to ease her taste buds.
"It is salty and spicy, sour, and it's getting hotter!" Askari said frantically. Katie added that the spiciness stays in her mouth.
Askari rated the spice level of this sauce a 6.5; Stephanie a six; Katie a six. "This to me is real chili. The first two were just condiments," Askari told the Global Times. "I would cook with the first; the second I would put on a sandwich. But this I would use as chili sauce."
Lee Kum Kee chili sauce
Stephanie noticed there were four chili patterns on the package of this sauce. "It looks like a sign of warning," she laughed.
Askari was the first to try. "It's garlic, salty and sweet. It's not really spicy, I don't like it. That was disappointing," he said. "It just doesn't taste good. It's too dry."
In terms of hotness, Katie felt this one was the spiciest by far. Likewise, Askari said this sauce started out not spicy, but then the heat became stronger in his mouth. "My tongue is burning now," both Stephanie and Askari said.
Askari rated this sauce a seven; Stephanie a 7.5; Katie a 6.5.
Chuan Xiang beef-flavor chili sauce
While seeing this sauce, Askari said it looks like the sauce he once had at a hot pot restaurant. However, Stephanie and Katie were turned off by its look.
"It is really dark, much darker than the previous ones," Katie said. Stephanie also commented that "it doesn't look appetizing. It looks weird. If someone told me there were worms in it, I would believe it."
Askari wanted to be first to try. "I got a lot. No one can call me a wimp this time," he joked. "It is salty, a little bit acidic, a little sweet. But it is not spicy," he said, adding that this one was his least-favorite, and thus unlikely to buy it.
Katie dipped a chip into the sauce. "It is not spicy at all," she commented. "I don't mind its flavor. But I just don't know what to do with it."
Stephanie hesitated to try the beef chili sauce. She smelled it for a few seconds before finally tasting. "I don't think I am going to like it," she said, then frowned. "It has too much flavor," Askari said, "It tastes like it should be two or three different chili sauces."
Notably, all the participants felt this was the least-spicy sauce. Askari only rated it a one. "It is barely spicy," he explained. But Katie gave it a fair five.
Most favorite and least favorite
After the taste test, our three participants chose their most favorite and least favorite sauces. Askari said the beef-flavor chili sauce he tried was his least-preferred by far.
As for their most preferred, Katie chose pod pepper, which she explained has a nice level of spiciness as well as a good overall flavor.
In comparison, Stephanie liked the pork-flavor chili sauce the most. "The one I could picture mixing with different things for breakfast or brunch," she said.
Similar ideas were shared by Askari. He said the pork-flavor sauce is the best to go with Western food. "It's got a very beautiful flavor. If I was cooking, I would use this one," he said. "But if I just want chili, I would use the pod pepper one."
Compared with American chili
Our American participants also compared the major differences between Chinese and Western chili sauces.
Stephanie pointed out that the large amount of oil in Chinese chili sauce is the biggest difference. She noted the thick layer of pure oil floating above the chili upon opening their jars.
Askari added that another big difference is that Chinese chili sauces tend to be much saltier than those in the West. "In general we usually don't have salt in our chili sauces," he said.
Katie suggested that as most Chinese sauces are meant to be preserved for long periods of time instead of being consumed instantly, this might be the reason why Chinese chili uses so much salt and oil.