On Food Network shows, when chefs want to add some heat to their dishes, they talk about adding a splash of Sriracha. Not hot sauce. Sriracha. The name is synonymous with hot sauce , as Xerox once was with copiers. And all in the space of just thirty years.
If you think about it, Sriracha is the quintessential American immigrant success story.( Penniless immigrant arrives in America and by dint of sheer hard work and risk taking builds a successful business). Sriracha was introduced to America by David Tran, an ethnic Chinese refugee who fled Vietnam and arrived on these shores in 1980.In Vietnam, he had made a spicy sauce from peppers grown by his brother and intended it as a condiment to be used with pho, the ubiquitous Vietnamese soup. When Vietnam fell to the communists, the Tran family bought their way out and fled to various countries before re-uniting in the U.S in 1980. Within months, Tran began manufacturing Sriracha from ground red jalapeno, distilled vinegar, garlic, sugar and salt and the rest is history.Some say that the sauce is based on an original recipe first formulated by a Thai housewife in the 1930s. She lived in the coastal town of Sri Racha in Eastern Thailand and named the sauce after the town, the main reason the name cannot be patented and why there are so many purveyors of Sriracha sauce.David Tran named his company Huy Fong after the Panamian freighter (the Huey Fong) that brought him to the United States. He marketed the bright red sauce in green topped plastic bottles decorated with his astrological sign, the rooster.
Tran intended his Sriracha for use by the Asian community since versions of the sauce are popular in China, Thailand, Vietnam and other southeast Asian countries but it has since become mainstream and is now used for many purposes. If you watch Diners Drive-ins and Dives on the Food Network, you know that restaurant cooks all over the country are using it on pizzas, hot dogs, hamburgers and a host of other dishes. Bon Apetit magazine even had an article on 25 ways to use Sriracha. In addition to using it as a marinade and a dipping sauce the article suggested using it in a Bloody Mary, as a cocktail sauce, in marinara sauce, ketchup, salad dressing,to flavor soups, on bahn mi and on garlic bread. The restaurant chain Applebees serves its fried shrimp with a dipping sauce of mayonnaise spiked with Sriracha and P.F.Changs uses it in their dipping sauce too. Lays makes Sriracha flavored potato chips and Sriracha flavored popcorn and another company uses Sriracha in its peach jam! Sriracha inspired products include a lip balm, iPhone cases, and cookbooks.No wonder Tran’s company sells over 12 million bottles a year.
What is behind the meteoric rise of Sriracha to its near iconic status? In my opinion, it is the taste which is spicy without being fiery, and doesn’t fundamentally alter the taste of the dish to which it is being added. Unlike Louisiana hot sauces like Tabasco or Red Devil which are very sour and too hot for my liking, Sriracha’s hotness is leavened by the addition of sugar and garlic. The judicious use of vinegar results in a sauce with a complex, ” rounded” taste , not one that is merely hot and sour, one that makes the sauce versatile so that it can be used for myriad purposes.
Over the years, I was a little puzzled by what I thought was Sriracha’s inconsistent taste. Sometimes, the color of the sauce seemed darker; other times the sauce seemed thicker or thinner than I remembered. Once I noticed that the plastic cap on the bottle was yellow and not green. Then, one day, I read that Sriracha is a generic name and that many companies make their own version of Sriracha, each with its own logo. Some of the other brands even come in containers that mimic Huy Fong’s green topped bottles. Some of the knockoffs are Shark Brand ( China), Phoenix and Unicorn brands( Vietnam), Sri Raja Panich ( Thailand) and a yellow capped version manufactured by Roland foods whose bottles feature two dragons instead of Huy Fong’s rooster. Recently, I picked up a bottle of Sriracha at the local Shoprite without looking at it closely. When I got home, the color of the sauce seemed different, dark brown and not red. I looked closer and found that it was Sriracha manufactured by Badia. The taste was nothing like the Sriracha I’m accustomed to. ( I’ve since seen Sriracha manufactured by Texas Pete. It looks like Red Devil in its consistency and color and I know that I’m never going to try it).
In my opinion, none of the others comes close to Huy Fong Sriracha, the original in the green capped plastic bottle with the Rooster logo, known to aficionados as ‘ cock sauce’. Some of the others may be a few cents cheaper but they’re not for me.
Next: Sriracha’s success brings troubles.