Huy Fong's Rooster brand of chili sauces have become synonymous with Vietnamese food in America. In recipes, you'll see it listed as Vietnamese chili sauce or Sriracha chili sauce. When you go to a pho restaurant, the Sriracha bottle is on the table.
Upon reading the latest Quick Bites ("We Don't Look and Cook the Same") newsletter, Josh Levine sent me this email:
I have been enjoying Rooster brand sauces but would prefer a version without sodium benzoate (the preservative). Have you heard of someone selling such a preservative-free product -- preferably Huy Fong?
While I pride myself in reproducing some of Vietnam's best dishes such as Pho and Green Papaya salad, I would prefer to buy rather than make the above-referenced sauce.
Any sources or ideas applicable to the NYC area? I checked the Hong Kong Market in South Plainfield (a huge place) with no luck.
So if your child is super hyper and not willing/able to focus, you may want to cut down on foods containing food coloring and preservatives. Coloring is important in Asian cooking and in the Vietnamese kitchen, annatto is a natural colorant but cooks also like to use heavy doses of bottled food coloring. It' s not uncommon to see large (4 ounces or so) size bottles of food coloring at Viet grocery stores. Whenever I shop for Chinese egg noodles, I inspect the label and select ones without coloring.
Often times, especially if you consume lots of prepared and/or packaged foods, you simply can't avoid coloring and preservatives. That's not to say you're going to immediately suffer strange side effects. What's important to keep in mind is toxicity level -- how much of these additives are you putting into your body? Eat too much of something and there's bound to be a negative side effect.
For instance, my mother uses a light to moderate amount of MSG in her cooking but I've never (or yet) noticed any strange health effects. On the other hand, I've suffered headaches and a racing heart after loading up on cheap dim sum laden with MSG.
To answer Josh's question, I wouldn't worry much about the sodium benzoate in the chili sauce unless he was using tons of it every day over a long period of time. For me, not consuming tons of processed foods is the best strategy to keep those additives out of my system.
Is the Rooster even necessary?
Another thing about those chile sauces -- they're not required for good (authentic!) Vietnamese food. Just use fresh kickin' hot chiles -- either Thai, serranos, or whatever you can get your hands on. That's what you'd get at many restaurants in Vietnam and at my house. I keep Sriracha and the chili garlic sauce in my fridge but reach for certain dishes (see Ashley's comment and my response below; this edit reflects her correction of my position) or
only if I'm feeling absolutely lazy and need a short cut to heat.
A well crafted pho noodle soup broth would be killed by the addition of vinegary-hot Sriracha and sweet hoisin sauce. Add a slice or two of hot chile. (With the blandish jalapenos that restaurants in America offer, I add 3 or 4 slices.) For dipping sauces and dressings, the coarse chili garlic sauce is a fine addition for when you're in a pinch. But why not chop up (or pound with a mortar and pestle) chiles and garlic instead? The flavor will be fresh and free of food color and preservatives.
Whenever I'm at a Vietnamese restaurant in the States, I ask for fresh chile (ot hiem, pronounced "uht hee-em") and shun the prepared sauces because they make all the food taste the same. At home, I keep chiles frozen in zip top bag. They're stored in my freezer door where I can get to them in a flash!
Frozen chiles keep for at least 6 months. At farmers' markets right now, you should be able to score on lots of chiles. Or, purchase a bunch at an Asian market. Regardless, think long term and lay in a supply for the cool months ahead.
Related links worth wandering to:
- Josh has great photos of ethnic minorities in Vietnam at his site: joshlevine.org (click on Vietnam's Cloud people)
- Homemade Chili Garlic Sauce recipe (posted on 10/10/07)