How an Old Godmother has created China’s growing chili culture

From ‘too hot’ to chili lovers

Chili has seen a remarkable growth in China during the past couple of decades. I still remember my first year in China as a student in 1975. Sure, you could get spicy dishes in some restaurants, but the average Beijing citizen would start crying ‘hot!’, if a dish would include as much as one single tiny peppercorn.

Although chilli peppers were introduced to China in the latter half of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the fruit only really gained popularity during the early years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). It quickly entered the cuisines of a few regions in China, in particular Sichuan and Hunan, but in many other regions spicy food was regarded as exotic. This is why the term for ‘pungency’ as one of the Five Flavours was xin (pungent) rather than la (hot).

During my later terms in China, not much change in that situation occurred, until in the course of the 1980s Sichuan restaurants started to spring up like mushrooms in the Chinese capital. And we are not talking about food with a few chillis, but Chongqing Hotpot, a kind of fondue, but then with a soup that seemingly consists purely of chili, became the favourite of the Beijingers.

Nowadays, restaurants specialising Sichuan and Hunan cuisines can be found all over China and chili in many varieties (dried, paste, oil, etc.) are top items in supermarkets. There are even shops specialising in all types of chilli. Some people have started to speak about a Chili culture (lajiao wenhua). In Chongqing you can even visit the Youjun Chili Museum.

ChilliCulture ChliMuseum

The China Food Industry Association has organized the nation’s first Spicy Industry Conference on September 15, 2020, in Beijing.

Top chili nation

During a recently held forum on chili processing, insiders have stated that China has developed into the world’s largest chili processing region. The total value of the world market for chili is estimated at USD 30 billion, and China is good for one third of this. Sichuan province alone has an annual raw chili output of approximately 1 million mt, with a value of RMB 1 billion. In some Chinese statistics, spicy sauces are referred to as ‘Sichuan sauces’. The province’s chili processing industry has an annual turnover of RMB 2 billion. R&D in new applications for chili and chili derivatives is also growing, developing products for the food, pharmaceutical, cosmetic industries.

Here is a map of China indicating the relative spiciness of the local cuisines.

The following graph shows the development of the Chinese chili paste production from 2014 to 2020 (unit: 10,000 mt).

The leading brands in 2020 were:

Brand Share (%)
Lao Gan Ma 20.5
Lee Kum Kee 9.7
La Meizi 9.2

Various shapes

Chili is not only consumed as such, fresh or dried. The fruit is processed in numerous products that themselves are used as ingredients in home cooking or industrial foods. The Food Ingredients China (FIC) 2018 trade fair will included 30 exhibitors supplying various chili-derived ingredients, including: capsaicin, capsicum oleoresin, chili powder, and chili food colour.

A special type of hot sensation is caused by the Sichuan pepper (huajiao) that produces a numbing hot sensation in the mouth, caused by the hydroxy-alpha-sanshool it contains. Sichuan pepper is often combined with chili and other peppers in savoury pastes, like the Pixian Douban reported in an earlier post in this blog.

Chili paste

The by far most common form in which chili is consumed is the chili paste. It is a mixture of ground chili and a variety of other ingredients, and can be easily used to spice up dishes or as a dip for foods that could do with some extra flavour like boiled dumplings. China has produced 5.91 ml mt of chili paste in 2018; up 1.82%. Insiders estimate that that market will be worth RMB 40 billion by 2020.

Here is a list of the top 10 Chinese chili pastes.

Laoganma (Old Godmother) Laoganma

Laoganma is THE success story of the Chinese seasoning industry. Established in 1997 in Guiyang (Guizhou; another leading chili region of China) by a lady who used to sell spicy noodles at a street corner (starting in 1989), it has rapidly grown into China’s top range of chili products. The company also exports worldwide. Watch this video reporting on Laoganma and its founder.

Laoganma has a facebook group called ‘The lao gan ma appreciation society‘, and is sold on Amazon, and many more online platforms all over the world.

The latest development regarding Laoganma is that a group of young Chinese cocktail makers have started experimenting with cocktails made with Chinese spirits (baijiu) and various hot seasonings including Laoganma. The company has also started a fashionable merchandizing campaign late 2018.

Huaqiao Huaqiao

This brand has a history of more than 300 years, deeply rooted in its home town Guilin (Guangxi).

Lameizi (Hot Sister) Lameizi

This is once more a new brand, established in 1998 in a traditional chili region: Hunan. It is part of a conglomerate that produces a wide range of foods, besides seasoning products.

Lee Kum Kee LeeKumKee

I have reported on Lee Kum Kee before, in my post on yuxiang flavours. The brand dates from 1888 and has its home in Nanshui (Guangdong). It is the best known seasoning brand in East and Southeast Asia.

Meile Meile

This is the first Sichuan brand in this list. The brand covers a wide range of seasoning products, but its Fragrant Spicy Sauce has brought the brand fame.

Huhu Huhu

This brand has been established in Qingdao (Shandong), one of China’s blander cuisines, in 1992. It specialises in fermented savoury pastes.

Modocom Maodegong

This is an English rendering of the Chinese brand name Maodegong. It has been established by a farmer from Leizhou (Guangdong).

Huangdenglong (Yellow Lantern) Huangdenglong

This brand was launched in Hainan in 1994. Its name has been inspired by a latern-shaped chili that only grows in Hainan.

Fansaoguang (All Food Devoured) Fansaoguang

This is a brand of Gaofuji Food (Sichuan). The name refers to the Chinese perception that chili paste increases the appetite. There will be no leftover of food spiced up with this product.

Haitian Haitian

Haitian is one of China’s top seasoning brands. It is currently China’s top producer of soy sauce, but its other products are popular. It is another brand with more that 300 years of history, based in Foshan (Guangdong).

Hot and cold: chili-flavoured ice cream

The latest vogue in the Chinese chili culture is the appearance of chili-flavoured ice cream. It was launched, and we are not surprised, in Sichuan’s capital Chengdu; in the high-end Chunxi shopping district to be precise. Chili is added in the shape of chili oil.

The reaction among consumers are mixed, but it seems that this product is there to stay.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation.