Spice of Life: Sriracha Sauce Redefines Hot

Sriracha sauce originated in Thailand and became a favorite in the West thanks to a Vietnamese immigrant to the U.S. Now it’s an obsession for lovers of spicy food everywhere, including Israel.

Dan Peretz

“Chili, or chilli fruit – capsules of Capsicum baccatum frutescens, L., is grown in both Indies, and sold dried or preserved in vinegar. Placed in substance upon the tongue, it has an indescribably terrible effect, comparable to a mixture of the effects of fire or heat, pain, and undefinable distress, which lasts for hours and even days. Its active extract must, therefore, be always greatly diluted by cooks, for it is very bad form to cause surprise to guests by putting before them dishes containing excess of these spices.”

(From “The Spirit of Cookery” by Johann Ludwig Wilhelm Thudichum, 1895)

The popular treatise written by Thudichum, a doctor and biochemist, was devoted to the history, science and medicinal aspects of the culinary arts. His comment on the hot pepper, an interesting glimpse into 19th-century Westerners’ perception of this tiny and deadly member of the nightshade family, appears in the chapter devoted to condiments. Although written more than a century ago, this thorough and comprehensive chapter is still cited by modern food scholars seeking to define the elusive term, which refers to a large family of spices, sauces and other flavor enhancers used by cooks while preparing food or by diners during the meal.

Thudichum writes that the word “condiments” derives from the Latin, and at first referred to pickling and preservation processes for fresh ingredients. The ancient world had garum, a fermented fish sauce that was the main source of flavor for a wide variety of foods. But as time passed, the word came to refer to seasoning food and adapting it to diners’ palates. Thudichum also placed salt and herbs on the long list of condiments. Today in the West, the term is mainly identified with the preserved, ready-made sauces that are placed on the dining table. Mustard, ketchup and Tabasco are the first examples that come to mind, and in the last few years, sriracha, a sauce made from fermented hot peppers, has become a new global obsession.

Asian spice, 
American branding

“Anything you add sriracha to, even the worst junk food, becomes tastier. I even put sriracha on chocolate ice cream, and I take a little flask of sriracha with me on flights to put on the awful food they serve there.”

(from “The Confessions of 
One Sriracha Addict”)

In the West, condiments are mainly used to season prepared food. But in Asian cuisine, they still play an important role in the cooking process, and there are hundreds of different kinds. In a place where there is a shortage of trees to provide wood for fuel, a tradition of rapid cooking in woks developed, including the use of strong flavor agents – rather than delicate stocks that require slow cooking. Climate conditions are ideal for fermentation; and the process is responsible for the development of umami, the fifth, addictive, savory taste (along with sweet, sour, bitter and salty), that helps the poor, whose daily fare is a single bowl of rice, to eat more of the bland grain.

Sriracha sauce is named for the city where it was born, in the mid-20th century, on the eastern coast of Thailand. In Thai, the city and the sauce are written as Si Racha, but pronounced Sriracha. The name attests to Indian influence in Thailand, as the original was likely Sri Raja. The original sauce, made of hot peppers, vinegar, sugar and garlic, is now popular all over Thailand; it is used mainly to season seafood as well as deep-fried foods.

Sriracha has been mass produced in Thailand for many years, but it made its big breakthrough in the West thanks to a brand created in the U.S. by David Tran, a Vietnamese immigrant of Chinese extraction. Tran opened his factory in Los Angeles in 1980, two years after arriving in the land of opportunity. The family business – Huy Fong Foods – is named for the ship he boarded as a penniless refugee. The successful packaging – with its bright red color, green top and rooster logo (Tran was born in the Vietnamese Year of the Rooster) has spawned a whole range of merchandise, including iPhone covers and t-shirts. Second-generation immigrant celebrity chefs, like David Chang, who create a fusion between Asian and Western cuisine and are interested in traditional preserving and fermenting processes, have also helped spread the word about the product. And then there’s the elusive flavor element: The American-made sauce – in the view of many people, including myself – is even better than its commercial counterparts in Thailand, which can also be obtained in Israel.

The secret of its charm

“Sriracha has become the ultimate geek food. There’s a whole geek subculture about hotness. It’s a fringe thing, not everyone relates to it, and it seems off-putting – conditions that make the average geek feel right at home. I think sriracha has been crowned king because it’s so tasty, not just for its hotness. When I ask for a bottle of sriracha at the right restaurants, they give me an understanding look.”

(from “The Confessions of One Sriracha Addict”)

“I noticed its addictive effect during staff meals,” says chef Jonathan Borowitz, who plans to introduce a sriricha menu next week at Café 48 in Tel Aviv. “This sauce, which has become a cultural icon, is now found in nearly every restaurant that serves modern, Asian-inspired cuisine; but it was only when I saw how much sriracha the cooks and workers were adding to nearly every dish – and it’s not that the food itself wasn’t tasty – that I began to understand that this thing has a real effect on the nervous system. You just have to keep eating it.”

Hot peppers contain capsaicin, a substance that affects the nerve endings in the sensitive tissues of the mouth and the digestive system, and causes a sensation of pain – the “taste” that is perceived as spicy. This sensation spurs an extra release of endorphins, a natural form of morphine, which after the initial discomfort, helps to boost one’s mood. But, says Borowitz, “there are thousands of types of hot sauce – based on chili peppers or other things, like horseradish – but sriracha, which enhances other flavors and not just the spicy sensation, somehow seems to upgrade almost any dish or ingredient. It’s terrific in marinades and sauces and it works great in sandwiches, soups, beef and fish dishes – in just about anything, really.”

The sriracha menu, which will be served in specials throughout August, includes dishes like a salad of greens with sriracha vinaigrette and a cucumber salad with kimchi (fermented vegetables) and sriracha; a sriracha steak sandwich; a shrimp cocktail with sriracha mayonnaise (see recipe); an Indian-inspired dish of lamb in sriracha yogurt; a watermelon Bloody Mary cocktail), sweet-and-spicy brownies (see recipe), and many more surprises based on the addictive red stuff.

Recipes from chef Jonathan Borowitz

Homemade sriracha sauce

American sriracha is made from jalapeno peppers, which aren’t available in Israel most of the year, but it can also be made from the red chili peppers sold in local markets. Sometimes you can also find very hot habanero peppers here; if you use these, reduce the amount of peppers in the recipe by half. There are dozens of types of hot peppers, and the degree of heat also varies from season to season and year to year. So check to see that the spiciness suits your palate.

1/2 kilo hot red peppers
6 tbsp light brown sugar
6 garlic cloves
1 tsp fine salt
1/2 cup  5-percent vinegar

Trim off the tops of the peppers and discard the stems. Place all the ingredients, aside from the vinegar, in a food processor and grind to a smooth paste.

Transfer to a sterile jar, preferably glass, seal and keep at room temperature for five days. Lightly shake the jar each day, without opening it. Small bubbles will form in the jar – a sign of fermentation (This is a critical stage in making the sauce, so it’s important to make sure the jar is sterile before using it).

After five days, strain the contents of the jar into a small pot; it should look like red pepper juice, without seeds. Add the vinegar and simmer over low heat, stirring constantly, until the sauce thickens. Let cool and transfer to a clean jar. The sauce will keep in the refrigerator for up to six months.

Yellow sriracha sauce

A local version of the famous sauce. The process is identical to the above recipe, but with some changes in the ingredients.

1/2 kilo hot yellow peppers (sometimes available in supermarkets, more often in produce markets)

6 tbsp white sugar
4 garlic cloves
2 tsp freshly ground cumin
1 tsp freshly ground turmeric
Grated peel of 1 orange
1/2 cup 5-percent vinegar
1 tsp fine salt

Sriracha brownies

A basic brownies recipe with sriracha sauce to add a special punch, and a spicy nut brittle topping

4 eggs
400 gr sugar
220 gr soft butter
80 gr cocoa
1 tsp fine salt
125 gr flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 c chocolate chips
2 tbsp sriracha sauce

For the spicy brittle topping:

1/2 cup nuts (cashews / hazelnuts /
pecans), finely chopped but not ground
30 gr butter
100 gr white sugar
2 tbsp sriracha sauce

Preheat the oven to 150 degrees Celsius. Whip the eggs, sugar and butter in a
mixer with the “guitar hook” attachment for three minutes. Add the cocoa, salt, flour and baking powder and keep whipping for three more minutes.

When the mixture has expanded in volume, gently fold in the chocolate chips and sriracha. Transfer to a greased 25x35cm baking pan and bake for 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out dry.

For the brittle: Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the sugar and heat until it caramelizes, stirring constantly. Add the chopped nuts and the sriracha and mix well. Spread the mixture over a piece of parchment paper or a silicon surface and let cool completely.

Use a meat pounder to break the sheet of brittle into pieces and sprinkle them over the brownies before serving.

Dan Peretz