Foodstuff: Lee Kum Kee Brand – Chili Garlic Sauce
Lee Kum Kee is a producer and worldwide distributor of many Asian cooking products. I have seen quite a few rather snotty comments about LKK products on the Internet and this seems to stem from the fact that they have become so ubiquitous. It is rather as though, being commonplace, people no longer regard them as being as ‘special’ as less common equivalents. This however, is an unfortunate example of food snobbery and does the company a bit of an injustice, in my opinion. There is no doubt that the entire product line is a sometimes hit or miss as far as quality goes – some items are great, others less so – but I have generally found them to be pretty good on the whole. Their Chili Garlic sauce, while not the best of their entire product line, is still a very versatile and useful addition to anybody’s food cupboard…
Lee Kum Kee maintains a website here that lists their products, some recipes, and a lot of other information. Once at the site, you can select to view pages appropriate for 14 different countries or regions including, Canada, the US, Hong Kong, Mainland China and several more. I tried looking up Chili Garlic sauce on their Canadian pages but, curiously, the product that was shown did not quite match mine. The picture at their site showed the same basic label but without the Chinese characters over the English name. As you can see, mine does and I bought it here in Iqaluit. I had to go to their Hong Kong pages to find a picture that matched mine and I have experienced this with one or two other labels as well. I can only assume that their web page maintenance lags behind their distribution patterns somewhat.
Some of LKK’s product names are different in English than they are in Chinese (their ‘Spicy Bean Sauce is one example). The Chinese name in this case, however, is 蒜蓉辣椒醬 (suànróng làjiāo jiàng). This means ‘garlic hot pepper sauce’ and is thus a direct translation, albeit with the order of the main ingredients reversed.
As you can see, the ingredients are fairly simple and this would probably be quite easy to replicate in the home kitchen.
Taste and Appearance
The color of this product is a beautiful vibrant red and it has a fairly smooth consistency. When you open the jar and take a whiff the aroma is of fresh chili with the same slight vinegary tang as a Sriracha sauce. There is also a woody quality to it with a faint hint of something that is difficult to place but reminiscent of fresh cut grass.
The taste is very much that of a very salty Sambal Oeloek. Indeed, salt is the dominant taste sensation when you first take it into your mouth. The saltiness recedes after a moment or two and a rich umami taste develops that is rather like a miso, or bean paste, although there are no beans in the product, of course. The garlic and vinegar are not very apparent in the taste and I guess that the amounts used are just sufficient to contribute to the umami depth of the overall taste sensation. There is a definite sweetness, albeit fairly muted, but the chili heat is surprisingly mild. There is almost no spiciness at the beginning and just a briefly lingering warmth at the end, which will probably make the product a bit disappointing for anyone seeking a good fiery chill paste.
This is not LKK’s best product, and certainly not the best Chili Garlic sauce I have ever tasted. There is a very similar product, Huey Fong Sambal Oelek, made with just Chili salt and Vinegar, which is hotter and, in my opinion, a better chill sauce. Still, this is not a bad version by any means and is handy to have on hand. It is useful as an addition to dipping sauces (along with vinegar especially) and as an ingredient in sauces for a variety of dishes. I will be using it very soon in a Lamb recipe and will be publishing the results as an ‘Experiments’ post in due course.