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Sriracha has become the hot sauce of choice

There is no hotter sauce in the world these days than Sriracha.

And it is hot in two different ways. It’s hot because it is flying off the shelves and is the one Asian chilli sauce that famous Western chefs seem to love.

 

The New York Times tells us that the three-Michelin star New York chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten uses it on tuna and to spice up a Hollandaise. In London Yotam Ottolenghi has made it famous. Most trendy food truck chefs find some use for it. Food chains offer it along with ketchup. Even Walmart sells it to Middle America.

 

   And it is hot in a second sense because, well, it is a hot sauce. At a time when the West is going crazy over the hotness of chillies, Sriracha has become the hot sauce of choice for Western foodies who brag about how much chilli they can endure.

 

  Nearly a decade ago, I was first introduced to Sriracha in San Francisco. I liked it --- to the extent that Indians, who have grown up on fresh chillies can like any bottled chilli sauce. But I was not sure where it came from. The bottle said it was manufactured by the Huy Fong company, which sounds like the name of a mass-manufacturer of fortune cookies.

 

   I was told that it was actually a Korean sauce because everyone in California bought it at Korean grocery stores and supermarket.

 

   This sounded reasonable enough to me. Then, a few years later, the Sriracha boom began. That’s when all the fancy chefs started using it and it became the trendy hot sauce for the American mainstream, edging out Tabasco, which was now seen as fuddy duddy.

 

   Tabasco took such a hit that in 2014, it retaliated by launching its own Tabasco brand of -- yes, you guessed it! --- Sriracha sauce! The bottle looked nothing like the iconic Tabasco bottle and was clearly inspired by the Huy Fong container.

 

   The launch of Tabasco’s Sriracha was accompanied by hate tweets from American chilli-lovers who called it a rip-off and accused the McIlhenny Company, a family-run American success story with an impressive pedigree (the current CEO is a seventh-generation descendant of the founder) of trying to muscle in on Huy Fong’s success.

 

   I was intrigued by the loyalty that this sauce inspired, especially among young people. So I tried it again. It was very nice. But no, I couldn’t see why it was worth fighting about. Besides, I thought to myself, why didn’t I see it when I visited Korea?

 

   It turns out that Sriracha is not Korean at all. And there is no Mr. Huy Fong. The company was created by a Vietnamese entrepreneur called David Tran in (where else?) California. Tran grew up in Vietnam, emigrated to the US, coming over on a freighter called Huy Fong (so that’s where he got the name from!) and setting up a sauce factory.

 

   In the many glorious profiles I have read of Tran, he is always portrayed as embodying the American dream. The story goes like this:

 

   Tran came with nothing. He remembered the chilli sauce that his family ate in Vietnam. And he resolved to recreate that sauce in America. When he first bottled it, he was told it was too hot for America. Why didn’t he add some tomato? But the courageous Tran defied the sceptics and bottled an authentic sauce.

 

   And now that Tran is rich and successful, he is 'very low-profile'. We know this because nearly every interview he gives contains at least one reference to his low-profile nature and his reluctance to give interviews.

 

    So I had it completely wrong. It is not a Korean sauce. It is a Vietnamese sauce, right?

 

   Ah well, not exactly....

 

   The problem with the many articles about Sriracha in the Western press is that they are written by people who have not grown up with chillies or necessarily understand Asian food. They will talk admiringly of Sriracha’s special flavour being due to the courageous Tran’s refusal to use dried chillies; he insisted on fresh! Just Imagine! And when red chillis can’t be found, brave Tran will not make his sauce. So the global production of Tran’s Sriracha may well be limited by some global chilli shortage. And so on.

 

   The more I read about Tran, the more something kept nagging at the edge of my brain. Hang on! I said to myself. Isn’t there a town called Sriracha in Thailand near Pattaya?

 

   There is indeed. And that, in fact, is where the sauce originated, not in Tran’s genius imagination.

 

   It discovered that I was not the first to make this point. Thais feel very strongly about the appropriation of their Sriracha by a Vietnamese American. They have said so with increasing levels of outrage.

 

   The story seemed too good to resist. So, last week I took a plane to Bangkok and drove for two hours till I got to Sriracha (or Si Racha, both spellings are used).

 

   A friend had arranged for me to meet Khun Keiengsak (Khun is a gender-neutral Thai honorific), who ran the last surviving Sriracha sauce factory in the town. There must have been a time when Sriracha was pretty but now it is just another Thai small town with a population of 30,000.

 

"But how Thai is the Huy Fong version of the sauce? It’s a complex question because there is no one Sriracha in Thailand just as there is no one definitive brand of mango pickle in India."

   Khun Keiengsak turned out to be a 70-year-old man of great dignity and, it must be said, great contempt for the claims made by the Huy Fong company. “This Vietnamese man,” he snorted, “came once to Pattaya (the resort is near Sriracha), tried the sauce and decided to make it. He always intended to make the same sauce. Why else would he call it Sriracha?”

 

   I said that as the plucky Tran of legend was an impoverished immigrant before he made his sauce, I did not think he could have come to Pattaya for a beach holiday at that stage of his life.

 

   But Khun Keiengsak would not be diverted. “He says that it is a Vietnamese sauce from his childhood! They do not even have this sauce in Vietnam. If it is 'Vietnamese', why is it named after my town?”

 

   Khun Keiengsak says his great grandmother set up the business. “I do not say that we were the first or that she invented the sauce but it has been in our family for four generations,” he explained. According to him, this was a popular sauce in the town and may have been influenced by the Burmese workers who lived in Sriracha in those days.

 

   Now he runs the business with the aid of his sister, Khun Russamee. They took me to their ‘factory’ which was more like a small artisanal workshop, located in one of the few unspoilt bits of Sriracha, with palm trees and a Chinese temple in the court yard.

 

   Khun Russamee explained the process. They buy red chillies (the same ones we use for cooking in India), cut off the stalks, and then boil and salt them. Next, the salted chillies go into a grinder, where they are pulverised till a smooth paste forms. This salt and chilli paste is then left to develop in large jars for between one to two months. When they judge that it is ready, it is mixed with sugar, garlic, salt and vinegar and ground again. Eventually, they add water and bottle the sauce.

 

   There is, Khun Keiengsak explained, still a human dimension to the process. Though they use his great grandmother’s recipe the pungency of the chillies varies from month to month. Even the water, he says, can taste different. So Khun Russamee makes the necessary adjustments to the recipe with each batch.

 

   I asked him if he had tried the Huy Fong sauce. He said yes, and it was the same Sriracha sauce, made by the same method to the traditional recipe but with extra chilli. Khun Russamee said she did not like it at all because “too hot, too hot!”

 

   How had the ingenious Tran got hold of the recipe? I asked.

 

   “Oh, it is not like building an atom bomb,” Khun Keiengsak laughed. “It is a traditional sauce of the region. Everyone knows how to make it.”

 

   What did he object to in the Huy Fong version?

 

   He had two objections. The first was that good Sriracha is a balanced sauce. The Huy Fong sauce loses that balance in its eagerness to appeal to American chilli-heads. And the second objection was entirely predictable: "Why does he say it is Vietnamese? It is a well known local sauce. Just say that you are making a traditional Thai sauce. Why do you need to take it away from Thailand and say it is from somewhere else?”

 

   Fair point. But how Thai is the Huy Fong version of the sauce? It’s a complex question because there is no one Sriracha in Thailand just as there is no one definitive brand of mango pickle in India. Each brand has its own flavour. There are mass manufacturers (though none of them still makes the sauce in Sriracha) and there are artisanal makers like Khun Keiengsak and his sister. All of them make the same product but their sauces are not identical. So what do you compare the Huy Fong sauce to?

 

   The editors of the Lucky Peach, who know their sauces, said that Thai Sriracha sauces tend to be a ‘little more balanced’ while the Huy Fong sauce “is just straight heat and salt.”

 

   That is my view too --- using Khun Keiengsak’s sauce as a representative of Thai Sriracha. But mass market Thai Sriracha could be different. Khun Keiengsak’s is a small production (the brand is Floating Island) and it is hard to find, even in Bangkok.

 

   The New York Times used its own description of the Huy Fong Sriracha: “The truth is that Sriracha, as manufactured by Huy Fong, may be best understood as an America sauce, a polyglot puree with roots in different places.”

 

   In other words, a Thai sauce as re-interpreted for Americans that does not advertise its Thai provenance.

 

   Don’t knock it: the re-interpretation has paid off. The chilli-heads have turned the enterprising David Tran into a millionaire.

 

   And nobody cares that Sriracha is a real place or that the sauce originated there.

 


 

Posted On: 29 Jul 2017 06:51 PM
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