There’s an entire world of hot sauces out there, people.
And yet, food fans who are interested in heat of an Asian nature keep reaching for just one bottle: Huy Fong Sriracha.
That’s the one nicknamed “rooster sauce,” for the picture on the label. The one with the green cap. The one with the back story, about the sauce made in America (yes, sorry – California) by a Vietnamese refugee who gave it a Thai-inspired name and now has sales estimated at $60 million a year.
Huy Fong sriracha has become the Kardashian of condiments, turning up everywhere and in everything. Lays potato chips is adding a sriracha flavor this summer. Bruegger’s Bagels has a Sriracha Egg Sandwich. It’s in recipes for everything from ice cream sandwiches to lollipops.
It’s even left the kitchen: You can get rooster-sauce iPhone covers and stilettos. It’s on the International Space Station, for heaven’s sake.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. In the billion-dollar Asian sauce industry, Huy Fong sriracha has earned its keep for being sweet/hot and handy, easy to squirt on everything from pizza to spring rolls. But in our rush to embrace it, we’re missing a lot of other Asian sauces that can bring just as much flavor and fun to our food.
“I think sriracha is the greatest marketing ploy in the history of all sauces,” says chef Edward Lee of 610 Magnolia in Louisville. He was raised in a Korean family in Brooklyn and came to national attention on “Top Chef.”
“I was in Vietnam recently and we go into a noodle store and I ask for a bottle of sriracha and they look at me like I’m crazy. There is no sriracha in Vietnam.”
At home in Asia
Although he admits he has “sort of overdosed” on it, New York food writer and “Top Chef Masters” judge Francis Lam is still a fan of sriracha.
“I love how garlicky it is, and how it has a little acidity, a little brightness, from the vinegar. It’s kind of amazing that it’s taken over in such a huge way.”
Lam’s family heritage is Chinese, and he spent summers with his parents’ extended family in Hong Kong. The Cantonese food he grew up with wasn’t all that spicy, but there was always some kind of hot sauce on the table at restaurants. There were thin hot sauces and thicker sambals – chunky sauces made with chiles, onions and garlic, stir-fried slowly to concentrate the flavors.
“That’s the style I grew up with, that I’ve always loved.”
Charlotte chef Geoff Bragg’s mother is Vietnamese, but he didn’t experience much Vietnamese food growing up.
“It could be tough to find Asian ingredients here,” he says.
He was in middle school when his grandmother came to America and suddenly, she was cooking for the family and making fresh tuong ot toi – chile garlic sauce – every day.
Bragg is now chef at The Peculiar Rabbit, where the food is mostly European gastropub with Asian touches mixed in, like a bahn mi sandwich and sriracha-flavored deviled eggs.
Southerners like hot food, he says, “but it’s a different heat than Asian,” where fresh chiles play more of a role.
American, Caribbean or Mexican hot sauces usually are mashes of chiles, salt and vinegar. They’re all about heat.
Asian-style sauces are different. They’re more focused on chunky textures, layered flavors that combine sweet and heat, and umami – the elusive “fifth” taste, after sour,salty, bitter, sweet.
One ingredient that is ubiquitous in Asian cooking is chile oil, either bottled or a home version made by simmering fresh chiles in hot oil. It’s often sprinkled on soups or noodles.
“You can saute with it or use it as a finishing oil,” says Lee, who just published his first book, “Smoke & Pickles,” on his Asian/Southern cooking. “In some ways, it’s hotter – because it’s in an oil form, it coats your mouth.”
More than one sriracha
Before we declare that sriracha has jumped the shark, we should explain that there is more to sriracha than Huy Fong sriracha. There are other brands, including a Thai brand called Shark that is lip-smacking delicious – richer and less bitter than Huy Fong.
When Huy Fong founder David Tran left Vietnam for America on a freighter called the Huy Fong, he wanted to come up with a product that could be as ubiquitous as ketchup. He named his chile-based puree sriracha after a Thai sauce that is used as a dip for seafood and named for a Thai fishing town, Si Racha.
Sriracha also isn’t the only growing business. The Asian hot sauce category as a whole has grown nearly 10 percent a year.
Despite all those condiments, which fill several aisles in most Asian stores, home cooking in Asian families still relies on concoctions that are fresh and simple. Francis Lam, who also is a cookbook editor for Clarkson Potter, says one of his favorite dishes is plain, boiled shrimp served with a dish of really good, dark soy sauce.
“An hour before serving, slice a hot chile in it to steep. That’s it – that’s the sauce. And it’s delicious.”
Andrea Reusing, the chef at the Asian-inspired restaurant Lantern in Chapel Hill, thinks everyone should make a version of nam prik – fresh chile purees.
She also keeps a vinegar sauce going in the refrigerator by adding equal amounts of salt and sugar to distilled white vinegar and mixing in any kind of fresh chile.
“It lasts forever – the salt and sugar take the back-of-the-throat burn off the chile. You can be left with this really nice vinegar to use on greens or in sauces or soups.”
It’s only a matter of time before the sriracha craze wanes. Edward Lee thinks the next phase will be super-hot chiles, like India’s ghost pepper.
He’s ready, he says.
“I’m a spicehead. Bring it: I want my face to melt off.”
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