BOSTON, U.S. — For two decades, Tao Huabi, founder of popular Chinese chili sauce brand Lao Gan Ma, has been one of the Chinese diaspora’s most beloved figures, enshrined as their “goddess.” The brand’s signature chili sauces have comforted the hearts and stomachs of millions of Chinese people overseas who long for a taste of home.
Today a new goddess has emerged from YouTube, feeding hungry Chinese people with her cooking tutorials for a mixture of Chinese and international dishes. Xiaogao Jie, or Sister Gao, is from northwestern China’s Shaanxi Province and now lives in Canada with her family, from where she hosts a YouTube channel called Sister Gao’s Magic Ingredients. It has attracted 1.8 million subscribers and 214 million views since its launch in 2016.
If a copious dollop of Lao Gan Ma chili crisp sauce saved overseas Chinese from bland salads, bread and mashed potatoes in earlier years, Gao’s videos have taught home cooking to a younger generation of the Chinese diaspora who grew up on food deliveries and restaurant dishes. Her YouTube channel has also acted as a sanctuary for Chinese expats across the world during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Living in self-isolation in a foreign land thanks to coronavirus, many Chinese students and young professionals tuned into Magic Ingredients, learning from Gao to knead bread, pull noodles and bake cakes. The daily traffic to her channel started climbing steadily in March, when social distancing spread globally, peaking at 1.1 million views on May 9, according to NoxInfluencer, a YouTube analytics tool.
“I’m a long-lost daughter of Sister Gao who she’s never known,” jokes Alice Yang, who works in analytics at Amazon in the U.S. “She reminds me of my mother and the food she makes.”
Yang, who is originally from southern China’s rice-eating Yunnan Province, has learned to make dumplings and buns from scratch alongside her husband’s family, with whom she has hunkered down in Pennsylvania during the pandemic, by watching Gao’s videos.
Dumplings and buns are not necessarily food her own mother would make. But Yang, like many of Gao’s followers, happily basks in Gao’s motherly warmth. To her fans, Gao is a skilled chef who patiently holds the hands through the cooking process, using their native tongue, of many who had never learned to cook from their own mothers.
Gao’s tutorials, unlike those created by Li Ziqi, a reclusive food celebrity touting rural self-sufficiency whose videos are known for their breathtaking cinematography, are easy to follow for beginners. Her videos tend to run 2 to 6 minutes, shorter than others, and she almost never shows her face — shots focus on the food itself. Her narration is woven into the natural sounds of sizzling, cutting, frying and kneading as she demonstrates them.
Her dishes are made of ingredients one can get in any Western grocery store; she does not use specialties from the far mountains of China. Gao has not spoken to the press and did not respond to interview requests sent through her social media and video platforms.
If Li’s videos are soothing therapy for urbanites, Gao’s tutorials are practical tools that guide those in isolation to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty. Like a patient teacher, she walks her audience through the simple steps of preparing a dish in a mesmerizing voice — a soothing Mandarin accent with touches of northern Chinese.
There is no small talk in the videos. Everything she says is on-point — essential cooking tips and the scientific reasons behind them. Gao has made them globally accessible: On-screen measurements are in Chinese and English and in grams and cups, and the temperatures are given in both Fahrenheit and Celsius.
“As a Chinese southerner, dealing with flour had always seemed like rocket science to me,” says Yang. “Sister Gao’s recipes are great for beginners. Plus she explains to you stuff like how gluten forms in bread, why it’s important to rest the dough. And then you watch her effortlessly pull noodles. It’s really just like magic.”
For others, cooking with Gao is an escape from depressing news and a sense of helplessness in the pandemic. Li Muzi, a 26-year-old purchasing specialist at an auto company in Germany, says she only knew how to make what she calls survival meals, like tossed lettuce with chicken breast, before the pandemic, but she now spends hours baking Gao’s signature chiffon cake, garlic bread and pan-fried buns.
“Watching Sister Gao’s videos is my guilty pleasure in quarantine,” Li says. “Everything feels unstable, and so cooking is a great way to release myself from fear of the unknown. When you are cooking, you focus on nothing but the food itself, and the result is readily available.”
For Fiona Wang, a 36-year-old tax consultant living in Dallas, cooking with Gao alleviates anxiety about the worsening relationship between her birth country and her adopted home, as well as a hostile immigration environment. “Cooking brings me a much-needed and timely uplift,” she says. “I don’t think of what Trump has said when I cook.”
Gao’s videos also help bind bicultural relationships and families together. Li’s German boyfriend learned to chop scallions from Gao when the couple tried making cured beef together. For her boyfriend’s father’s birthday, Li made Chinese-style meat pies, following Gao’s recipe, which calls for beef and potatoes — two German staples.
“The pies really impressed my boyfriend’s family,” Li says. “After the birthday party, his mother even asked me for Sister Gao’s YouTube channel address; she wanted to learn to cook Chinese food from her.”
Nowadays, Gao’s popularity has expanded beyond North America’s borders, making its way deep into China, her home country. She uploads new recipes on all her platforms — in and outside of China — simultaneously. On Bilibili, a Chinese video-sharing platform, Gao has another 1.8 million followers raving about her work, who almost unanimously address this middle-aged woman as “mom.”
For those living abroad, Gao’s motherly voice and easy-to-grasp techniques are a balm for their nostalgia, especially in quarantine. Yu Duanduan, a 24-year-old Sichuan native living in Tokyo, says it was “depressing” to eat Japanese dishes, which are often sweeter than Chinese food, over the Chinese New Year, when Chinese restaurants were shut and she was stranded in Japan because of the pandemic.
“When I am down, a plate of a Sichuan dish I learned to make from Sister can really cheer me up,” she says.