Last May, American food historian John T. Edge wrote an article for the New York Times on the Rooster brand of Sriracha chile sauce made by Huy Fong Foods, a company owned by David Tran, a Chinese Vietnamese immigrant. Sriracha lovers across America did a Pace Picante kind of double take when they realized that the hot chili sauce was manufactured in a Rosemead, California, not some exotic locale in tropical Vietnam. John T’s analysis of Sriracha’s wide ranging success and cross-cultural uses made me wonder: Is Sriracha destined to be the uber Asian chile sauce?
Pim of ChezPim.com, born and raised in Thailand, led a lengthy Twitter discussion to clarify that despite Rooster brand’s Sriracha being THE go-to condiment for Vietnamese pho noodle soup, Sriracha is of Thai origin and not Vietnamese whatsover; Sri Racha is a seaside town in Central Thailand and the namesake chile sauce got its start there. John T.’s piece told the complex tale of an immigrant hot sauce in America, but he didn’t delve deeply into Sriracha itself. That wasn’t the point of his story. However, Pim’s Twitter discussion and my subsequent conversation with her about Sriracha led me to wonder about what other kinds of Sriracha sauces are out there in the American market. So I set about over the past 8 weeks to collect, taste, and make Sriracha hot sauce. This post is one of two on Sriracha.
A few points of clarification:
- Sriracha is not a traditional Vietnamese condiment but there is a similar condiment produced in Vietnam. Sriracha is not found in tons of restaurants and private homes in Vietnam. What you mostly see in the Motherland is lots of fresh chiles.
- Sriracha chile sauce is a Vietnamese-American phenomenon. The Rooster brand’s parent company, Huy Fong Food calls it Tuong Ot Sriracha (Sriracha chile sauce). They make a coarse chile sauce called Tuong Ot Toi Viet Nam (Vietnamese chile garlic sauce), which I gather was meant for the Vietnamese palate, though their Thai-style Sriracha has ironically become ubiquitous.
- I don’t champion squirting Sriracha into pho noodle soup. It ruins the broth. Unless the broth is dishwater-bad and you desperately need to fix it, please don’t add the hot sauce to pho. Sriracha is nice to dip a bouncy pho meatball (put the sauce in a separate dish with hoisin). Would you add ketchup to homemade chicken noodle soup?
My collection of Sriracha
Both Pim and cookbook author and Thai food expert Nancie McDermott pointed me to Shark brand of Sriracha, which is made in Thailand. They both said it tasted like the stuff in Sri Racha, and that it was better than American-made Sriracha. To prove the point, Pim gifted me a bottle of Shark brand, which she purchased at Lion Foods market in Saratoga. I took one look at the glass bottle and realized that Thai-made Sriracha sauce was under my nose all these years and I just didn’t smell it!
Since then, whenever I’ve shopped at a Chinese, Vietnamese or Thai market, I check out the store’s Sriracha collection. I found Por Kwan brand at ABC market (corner of Magnolia and Brookhurst) in Little Saigon in Orange County. It came in medium and strong so I bought both. Then there was the Cholimex Tuong Ot chile sauce that I’d brought back from Vietnam; a waiter at the Sofitel hotel tipped me off to the stuff years ago and told me that he brought a six-pack of Cholimex with him whenever he visited family in Canada. I follow his lead and bring some back with me in my luggage on each trip back. I’d already had the Rooster brand Sriracha in my fridge.
Just yesterday while shopping at a Thai market in Los Angeles, I found a Thai knockoff of the Rooster brand. The plastic bottle, chicken logo, and label bear and uncanny resemblance to the Huy Fong Sriracha sauce. David Tran’s choice of a rooster mascot reflects is Chinese astrological symbol (roosters are known to be good cooks) so the Thai Double Chicken brand is a transparent attempt at ripping off Tran’s rooster logo.
How do all of these commercially make Sriracha taste against each other? I held number informal tastings with anyone who came over for dinner to determine, as they used to say on SNL, “Quien es mas macho?” Below is a summary of everyone’s reactions:
Por Kwan Brand Sriracha: The medium heat version is smooth in texture and the strong one is slightly grainy. They’re both slightly darker red than their Thai brethen, which lean toward being orange-red. Both versions of Por Kwan tasted chemically. Pim said it’s hard to find Por Quan but found that it surprisingly tasted weird. After the initial smidgeon, neither of us wanted any more. Por quoi Por Quan? There are preservatives listed.
Shark Brand Sriracha: Comes in medium and strong, per Pim, but I’ve only seen the medium chile heat version. Shark is really well balanced, not too sweet, vinegary, or spicy hot. You can eat lots of it without blasting your taste buds. It does a good job of complementing flavors without overwhelming them. The label indicates no preservatives and in fact, includes the exact percentage of each ingredient. The screw cap is screwy and unreliable. I’ve seen it in many Asian markets since I started this quest.
Rooster Brand Sriracha: Is thicker in consistency and stronger in flavor than Thai-made Sriracha. Rooster brand has a sharp vinegary-heat that many people enjoy. You can feel its intensity to your follicles but it’s not always pleasant. Sometimes the Rooster brand of Sriracha has an acrid, off flavor. Use a little and it’s fine. Squirt too much and it becomes a flavor obliterator. Has preservatives listed.
Cholimex Tuong Ot: Is Vietnam-made and akin to a light version of Shark’s medium sauce. Cholimex is sweet as it contains a little tomato. Vietnamese food is not as spicy as Thai so the milder heat is understandable. There’s a slightly off, garlicky flavor though. Preservatives are part of the recipe.
Double Chicken Brand Sriracha: Tasted like Shark brand but packaged up in a Rooster brand-like plastic squirt bottle. The labels proudly says “Original Sriracha Chilli Sauce” and that it contains no artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, or MSG. Double Chicken brand is pleasant tasting and the squirt dispenser allows you to eat as much as you want, as well as create designs with it. This was the late entry, dark horse contestant as I found this sauce at LAX-C, a Thai warehouselike of foodstuffs located on Main Street on the fringes of Chinatown in Los Angeles.
Overall: The Rooster brand Sriracha is fine and widely available, but look a little harder at an Asian market (try closer to the floor!) and try to find Shark brand in the glass bottle; it's available online too. Double Chicken brand seems pretty new and I don’t know if it will take off. When traveling in Vietnam, go to the condiment vendor at a wet market (or even to an indoor market like Ben Thanh market in Saigon) and get a bottle of Cholimex. If you like it, buy a six-pack for the road.
Linda Lim, a Korean-American friend who’s a chile fiend, participated in the initial round of tasting over July 4th weekend. I had some of my homemade chile garlic sauce out and when she finished tasting everything, she said, “Shark is good, but can’t you make your own?” So I did a little research . . . Stay tuned for Sriracha installment #2.
Do weigh in if you've tasted Sriracha from Thailand, these brands mentioned here or others! If you're a Rooster lover, crow loudly and proudly too!
July 25 Update: Thai-style Sriracha Chile Sauce recipe (Tuong Ot Sriracha): a fresh and fermented version for you to choose from