First it started appearing on tables in Asian restaurants. Then college students caught on and started buying it to spice up the cheap ramen, cheap macaroni and cheap pizza they subsisted on. But now sriracha is everywhere: it’s spawned multiple cookbooks, sriracha-flavoured Lay’s potato chips, even Subway got in on the action with a new creamy sriracha sauce and a marketing campaign to match. But where did this fiery, neon red condiment come from, and why does everyone suddenly love it so much?
What is sriracha?
Sriracha is a delicious hot sauce made from ground chili peppers, garlic, vinegar, salt and sugar. The most common brand is made by Huy Fong Foods—you’ll recognize it by the giant rooster on the bottle and the bright green squeeze top—that for most is synonymous with the term “sriracha,” but is one of many brands in both the U.S. and Thailand that manufacture their own take on the sauce.
Where did it come from?
Thailand, originally. Legend has it that a woman named Thanom Chakkapak came up with the first recipe more than 80 years ago—she lived in the coastal Thai city of Si Racha, hence the name.
Huy Fong founder David Tran began making hot sauce while he lived in Vietnam, then, after immigrating to the U.S. and settling in Los Angeles in 1980, founded Huy Fong Foods—named after the ship that carried him to his new home—and started grinding chili peppers by hand to make the “rooster sauce” we all know and love. Oh, and the rooster? It’s Tran’s sign according to the Chinese astrological chart.
Every bottle of rooster sauce comes from a single plant in California, and every pepper that’s gone into the sauce for the past 20 years has come from a single farm, Underwood Family Farms, an hour outside of L.A.
Just how popular is it?
Huy Fong sold 20 million bottles in 2012, earning US$60 million.
How did everyone find out about it?
Good old-fashioned word of mouth, plus endorsements from Internet darlings like The Oatmeal. Huy Fong spends zero money on advertising, doesn’t have an official Facebook or Twitter account, and even its website is a relic that hasn’t been updated since 2004.
Is all sriracha sauce the same?
Not by a long shot! Well-known companies like Kikkoman and Trader Joe’s sell their own recipes, while you might find other brands like Shark or Sriraja Panich (Thanom Chakkapak’s brand name) on the shelf at your local independent grocery store. Every brand has a different consistency, a different level of spiciness, some use preservatives while others don’t, etc. Serious Eats compared several of the most well-known, so check out their detailed descriptions to get an idea of just how much variety there is.
Why does everyone love it all of a sudden?
Short answer: it’s really good! It’s a versatile condiment that tastes great on everything from pizza and hot dogs to sushi and omelets. Huy Fong head honcho David Tran is committed to quality first, having turned down offers to invest or even buy the whole business because he doesn’t want anyone to jack up the price or cut corners on the sauce.