A couple of incidents last week led me to realize that there may be much misunderstanding about Sriracha chile sauce. The first occurred on the October 2011 Food Finds post. Upon checking out Jess Dang’s pitch for a Sriracha documentary film project, @Chrisjone commented that Jess had incorrectly described Sri Racha as an island. It’s a town with seaport. There’s an island nearby. I notified Jess of the error and she promptly corrected it.
The second incident was related to the 2011 CHOW 13 Award listing of influential food people. Coming in at lucky number 8 was David Tran of Huy Fong Foods, the maker of the Rooster brand of Sriracha. I’m quoted as saying that many people don’t know whether or not the Rooster brand’s version of Sriracha is Thai or Vietnamese. It’s kinda messed up and mixed up, I told writer John Birdsall.
Case in point, I’m often asked about Sriracha even though it’s not a traditional Viet staple. In The Sriracha Cookbook, Randy Clemens's introduction describes the hot sauce as an beloved condiment at Asian markets, upscale restaurants, and even Wal-Mart. Clemens follows up with the Thai backstory in a separate chapter but he opens up the book by framing the "Rooster sauce" as a “mainstay in many home kitchens and innumerable college dorm rooms.” This coming Sunday, Sriracha will be part of a Simpson's foodie episode!
After reading the CHOW entry on Tran, Pim Techamuanvivit texted me, “Sriracha sauce is definitely Thai.” Of course, Pim and I know that because we’ve talked a lot about the hot sauce. I’ve had her over for a Sriracha taste-off between Vietnamese, Viet-American, and Thai brands. But not everyone is as lucky as I am to have a Bangkok-born friend who’s also a persnickety food expert.
That said, I’m throwing out some points here about Sriracha for your consideration and comments:
Sriracha is a Vietnamese hot sauce. You can claim this to the extent that you’re talking about the rendition produced by David Tran, a Chinese-Vietnamese immigrant to the United States. His company, Huy Fong Foods, produces three Southeast Asian-style chiles sauces: chile garlic sauce (tuong ot toi) for Vietnam, sambal oelek for Indonesia, Sriracha for Thailand. He succeeded with Sriracha after placing it at most (if not all) pho restaurants in the US.
On the bottle in Vietnamese, the company suggests its Sriracha for Chinese egg noodles, pho, and meat dishes. English, French, and Spanish readers should use it for soup, sauces (salsas), hot dogs, pizza, hamburgers, chow mein and pasta. So while the sauce may have been an initial hit with pho, it's marketed to a much broader audience.
The rooster logo on all Huy Fong Food products is Tran’s Chinese astrology sign. Tran is shy about granting interviews. One of the best profiles on Tran and his company was written by David Chute for the April 2001 issue of Los Angeles magazine. Read his article called “Fire in the Bowl”:
Sriracha is integral to pho noodle soup. No, it’s not. My opinion is that it can obliterate a well-balanced, well-crafted bowl of pho. Go to Hanoi and you won’t find Sriracha on the table at the pho joints or stalls. Sriracha is popular at Vietnamese-American pho restaurants. I only use it with pho when it the noodle soup contains beef meatballs: Sriracha and hoisin sauce make a good dipping sauce for the bo vien meatballs.
Rooster brand’s Sriracha is definitive. Unfortunately, Huy Fong Foods’ claim on Sriracha is not the same as the McIlhenny Company’s exclusive registered trademark for TABASCO. The Rooster brand of Sriracha is ubiquitous in the United States but it’s not the only rendition. At the top of this page is a Thai bottle of Sriracha Panich next to the Rooster brand’s. Pim brought the Thai bottle back from overseas and gifted it to me. It’s the original version, she emphasized. With a little Googling, you’ll see that some people say that Sriracha Panich is the real Sriracha. The medium-hot offers a nice balance of sweet-spiciness.
At James Syhabout’s Hawker Fare in Oakland, California, the Sriracha on the table is imported from Thailand:
According to a Hawker Fare staff member I spoke to last week, they like it more than the Rooster brand’s. What they offer at the restaurant was specially selected by Syhabout and not readily available in the U.S. (I hope someone can fix that because it’s really good stuff.)
Sriracha originated in Thailand. The fact that the bottle Pim gave me has no Vietnamese or Chinese on it underscores the chile sauce’s Thai birthplace. On the flip side, there is no Thai script on a bottle of the Rooster’s version of Sriracha. There’s English, Chinse, French, Spanish, and Vietnamese printed on the bottle. None of the text claims any particular ethnicity or cuisine.
Sriracha and Sri Racha. Both are acceptable spellings. In English, the one-word spelling of Sriracha generally denotes the hot chile sauce. Sri Racha as two words is often used to refer to the place in Chonburi Province in central Thailand where the sauce came from. Anyone have extra insights on this?
The Rooster brand of Sriracha tells a wonderfully complex story of America. I can think of few other places on this planet where a Chinese-Vietnamese immigrant succeeds in turning a popular Thai hot sauce into a must-have for an iconic Viet noodle soup and a go-to ingredient for foodie heat seekers of various stripes and colors.
Indeed, traditional borders break down and blur in the world of Huy Fong Foods’ Sriracha. Asian ingredients and bold flavors are popular in the States nowadays. I’m hoping that after people fall in love with the Rooster brand of Sriracha that they delve a little deeper to broaden their palates even further. The Asian food landscape is huge and full of tasty things to try.
What’s your impression of Sriracha? Did you know or care about its origin? Do you like Sriracha chile sauce? If yes, how do you use it? What brands of Sriracha do you like?
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