Try as I may, sometimes I end up eating lunch at my desk. It’s not a sad lunch, though, because I do my best to make it a little special. Vietnamese hot chile sauce is often involved to lend just the just the right fruity hit of heat. The homemade bright orange red condiment lifts my spirits as it brights the flavors of something as simple as a quickie bowl of fried rice made from leftovers. In the photo above, I served myself lunch using some dishes picked up in Vietnam. So even though I have to meet looming deadlines, it’s less stressful because I have some of my favorite things to remind myself of how and why I do what I do. (The power of hot sauce and pretty dishware!)
What is Vietnamese hot chile sauce? Isn’t it the Rooster brand of Sriracha?
Well, despite that fiery condiment being ubiquitous at Vietnamese restaurants, it is not a Vietnamese hot chile sauce. It’s Thai in origin but has become practically synonymous with Viet pho in America and other expat communities. Is there a comparable hot sauce in Vietnam? Yes! In Vietnam, one of the most popular condiment brands is Cholimex. In 2007, a waiter at a fancy, French-owned hotel in Saigon gifted me a great tip: Cholimex chile sauce. I’d had it with pho several mornings in a row and the moderately spicy-sweet sauce was perfect with the soup. Not as hot as Stateside sriracha, the Viet chile sauce went exceptionally well with Vietnamese food (as it should!). When the waiter showed me the bottle, he said, “I buy several six-packs for relatives whenever I go to America. It’s sold all over town. Sister, go to Ben Thanh market.”
I triple wrapped the chile sauce bottles for my trip home and shared them with my mom. I looked for Cholimex in America an only once, in Portland, Oregon, at Fubon market did I see it. That was back in 2010.
For several years, whenever I went back to Vietnam, I bring back some hot sauce in my luggage. It’s a great product line and Cholimex has yet to distribute in America. My friends in Singapore have seen it there. In Vietnam, it’s everywhere – from chile sauce to soy sauce.
When I wrote The Pho Cookbook, I wanted to offer a Vietnamese hot chile sauce recipe. I know that most people will reach for Sriracha, and I’ve included a Thai-style Sriracha hot sauce recipe on this site. However, if you’d like to go deeper into delicious Viet food and cooking, make this recipe.
After studying Cholimex tuong ot hot chile sauce, I reversed engineered it to come up with my own Vietnamese hot chile sauce recipe. The tomato lends texture, balances the chile heat, and adds a slight, bright fruitiness. Choose fleshy, firm medium-hot chiles for a condiment with character. If they’re dryish, the sauce may be a little thin.
Now is when red hot chiles are popping up at farmer’s markets! Gather up a bunch, or just start out with six ounces (about 8 medium ones) and make a batch.
Pointers on how to make Vietnamese hot chile sauce
When you’re working through this recipe, note the following things I’ve learned from my experiments and near disasters.
This Vietnamese hot chile sauce takes 20 minutes from beginning to end. Yup, in less than 30 minutes, you can capture the fruity heat of Vietnam in a jar. Go for it!
Pair this hot sauce with homemade hoisin sauce for your next bowl of beef pho! I like to combine the two in a small dipping sauce dish to dip my meatballs in. Just a suggestion to pho fans.
Viet World Kitchen NEWS >> This little site that I started in 2002 is in the final running for a Saveur blog award! Many thanks to the mysterious person(s) who nominated this site for the magazine’s blog awards. There were over 20,000 entries and VWK made it into the final six in the Culture Category. Between now and 9/12/18, you can vote for Viet World Kitchen and other favorite food blogs. Thank you for all the support!
Vietnamese Hot Chile Sauce (Tuong Ot)
Yield 3/4 cup
Organic cane sugar perfectly balances and brightens the chile heat without being cloying. As an experiment, substitute 1/2 ounce yellow Chinese rock sugar, which you may already have for preparing pho broth. If the chile sauce has too many rough edges, round them out with a touch of maple syrup. If refined sugar isn’t for you, substitute 2 tablespoons of maple syrup for the sugar below.
When Fresno chiles aren’t available, or if they’re just not very hot, try red or green jalapeño. Consider combining different kinds of chiles, too.
- 1 large clove garlic
- 1 medium (3 to 4 ounc) Roma tomato
- 6 ounces Fresno or other kinds of moderately-hot chiles
- Brimming 1⁄2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1 tablespoon sugar, preferably organic
- 1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar
- 1⁄2 cup water, plus more as needed
- Coarsely chop the garlic and tomato. Transfer to a 11⁄2-quart (1.5 l) saucepan, including the tomato juices and seeds.
- Stem and quarter the chiles lengthwise. Because you want a moderate amount of heat, seed half of the chile pieces, reserving those unwanted parts in case the chiles are wimpy.
- With the skin side facing up, coarsely cut all of the chiles crosswise into pieces the size of your thumbnail. Use one of the leftover stem pieces and your knife to usher them into the pan.
- Add the salt, sugar, vinegar, and water. Bring to a brisk simmer over medium heat. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes, until the chiles have softened. Taste midway. If it’s too mild, add some of the reserved chile seeds and spongy placenta to the pan. When done, slide to a cool burner, let sit for 3 to 5 minutes, then puree in a blender. Expect skin bits and seeds to remain.
- Pass through a fine-mesh strainer, pressing on the mixture with a spatula; discard the solids. Allow to cool and concentrate, uncovered, for about 1 hour before tasting and tweaking. If needed, add salt by the pinch, sugar by the 1⁄4 teaspoon, vinegar by the 1⁄2 teaspoon, or water by the tablespoon.
- Texturally, the sauce should resemble a pourable sriracha. The flavor should be pleasantly sweet and spicy. You will want to eat the chile sauce by the spoonful but know that you should not. Keep refrigerated for up to 3 months. Enjoy at room temperature.
From Andrea Nguyen’s The Pho Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 2017)