The story behind the Sriracha trend

Roland Leiser

Huy Fong Foods Inc. Sriracha sauce is displayed for sale during the grand opening of a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. location in the Chinatown neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, U.S., on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. will phase out 10 chemicals it sells in favor of safer alternatives and disclose the chemicals contained in four product categories, the company announced Sept. 12. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

On a cold January day at my home in Silver Spring, Md., I picked up a newspaper advertisement that urged readers to try “fiery Sriracha wings” at their Super Bowl Party. Why would Sriracha Mayo, as the product was named, be linked to one of the most watched football games in the U.S.? Actually no reason at all, but America has embraced Sriracha-named hot chili pepper sauces and flavors in seemingly endless variations and transmutations. And this is just one example.

Like so many things influenced by Thailand in the culinary world, Sriracha (SEE-la-cha) chili sauces are a “hot” commodity. The tangy product occupies shelf space in grocery stores, Asian food stores, and Hispanic bodegas in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. Popular at restaurants, it’s also a key ingredient for Sriracha-inspired recipes in national magazines.

Pick almost any household name in the food business, and you’ll find a Sriracha sauce- related product: Heinz, Tabasco, Trader Joe’s and Kikkoman for example; a Vietnamese company recently introduced the 3 Mien label, which refers to the country’s three geographic regions. Because Sriracha is a place name and can’t be trademarked, manufacturers obviously use it any way they want on their labels.

The popular sauce was first produced in the bay side city of Sriracha, as we know, where the famous name originated. No more, but at least four brands are still made elsewhere in Thailand: Shark, Aroy-D Sriracha Chilli Sauce with the odd spelling of “chili,” Sriraja Panich labeled with a variation of the word Sriracha, and the Three Mountains brand that I had brought from Bangkok early this year because it’s not yet sold in the U.S.  

Really, it’s not important where the sauce is produced. As distinguished from questionable offshoots such as Sriracha-flavored mayonnaise or ketchup and who knows what else, hot chili pepper sauces are prepared from virtually the same ingredients.

I’m no food scientist, but nutrition labels of familiar brands include at a minimum pureed hot chili peppers, sugar, garlic, salt and acetic acid also known as vinegar. Beyond those ingredients, some have preservatives and stabilizers or MSG (used only in Aroy-D among the four Thai-made sauces), but Sriraja Panich is preservative-free. Still another product, Lee Kum Kee’s Sriracha Chili Sauce, not only includes salt but anchovy-based fish sauce “for two different types of saltiness,” explains a spokeswoman.  

Individual tastes will obviously account for preferences in hot chili sauces. Maybe a little more sugar here or less vinegar there or a higher concentration of chili peppers will result in differences in the “kick”  to the palate.  

The story is often told of the Vietnamese-Chinese immigrant behind the successful U.S.-made Rooster brand. Of the growing number of Sriracha hot sauces, it’s probably the most widely distributed in restaurants and groceries, and I’ve found it sold in some unlikely places.

Yet Sriraja Panich is believed to be the first such sauce commercially produced in Sriracha. It is the “true original,” claims a spokeswoman for Eastland Food Corp., a Maryland distributor. My wife, growing up in Thailand, recalls that the product was served at her family’s dining table.   Today Sriracha hot chili sauces are produced not only in Thailand but also in the U.S, China, and  now Vietnam. Yet the name has become carelessly identified with anything spicy hot from Thailand and Southeast Asia, and thus rendered almost meaningless.

Even the Wall Street Journal has taken note, once referring to “sriracha, a hot chili pepper sauce” as a new food trend, which it is anything but. The writer also neglected to capitalize the name, but the paper isn’t the only offender.

The sauces have become a favorite condiment recommended by food writers who often use it generically as in “add a little Sriracha” to a recipe. Sriracha what? As I discovered, there is Sriracha-named butter, sea salt, BBQ garlic sauce, almonds plus that ketchup and the mayonnaise lined up in the aisles of my local markets or seen on the web.

I’m not sure who first invented the distinctive plastic bottles for packing the renowned taste tickler, but later manufacturers have piggy-backed on their popularity.

As a self-confessed hot sauce addict with six brands in my fridge, I would hesitate to choose a favorite, so let’s just call it a six-way tie.  

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