Barbecue spice and Sriracha chile-lime sauce bring a modern profile to Applebee’s shrimp dish.
Sriracha is just the beginning. It may seem like old news, yet its trajectory is not over. Instead, it is changing form and emerging in unexpected places. Its fermented chile flavor and sour edge is balanced with sweetness and a garlic bite. This once exotic and now household name has a convoluted past. Exploring its history gives us insight into today’s emerging next flavor superhero of hot sauce.
Sriracha: it’s a Place!
Fifteen years ago, I was on a culinary expedition in Bangkok and I looked down at my Lonely Planet World Food book and exclaimed to my wife, “What?! Sriracha is a place?” She rolled her eyes, and the next day we were on the bus to find out the real story. The story goes: Nahm phrik Sriracha, as the Thais call it, was created more than 80 years ago by Thanom Chakkapak, in the then-small seaside town of Si Racha in the Chonburi province of Thailand. What began as small batches for friends and family grew into the bestselling Sriraja Panich brand. In 1984, Chakkapak sold the company to Thai Theparos Food Products, a prominent food manufacturer in Thailand. As in every other marketplace, others followed, yet none have taken the crown away.
So, what’s the story behind that green-topped bottle you see in nearly every kitchen across America?
An American Icon
Affectionately known as “rooster sauce,” Huy Fong Sriracha Sauce is by far the bestselling Sriracha sauce and, oddly enough, was founded by a Vietnamese-American, David Tran. He began selling hot sauce in his van around Chinatown in Los Angeles in the 1980s. Interestingly, the company name and rooster logo were inspired by the Taiwanese freighter, Huey Fong, that transported him to the United States. Decades of hard work coupled with sushi restaurants using Sriracha as a primary spice for Spicy Tuna Rolls led to soaring sales of his iconic sauce.
By 2003, the sauce made the big time, landing a space on Walmart’s shelves. The next 10 years saw the bottles popping up on every Vietnamese restaurant table. Chefs in non-Asian concepts began to rely on the sauce’s not-too-spicy, bright red, salty flavor for everything from barbecue sauces and enriched ketchups. The year 2010 marked the 20 million-a-year bottle mark, nearly five times the sales of just 10 years prior. Bon Appétit magazine even named Sriracha its “ingredient of the year” in 2010. And in 2011, the sauce got its first mainstream book: The Sriracha Cookbook by Randy Clemens (Ten Speed Press, 2011).
It was not long before chains like P.F. Chang’s added it to their menu. “The tuna roll is inspired by our vision to have lighter small plates on our menu. We wanted heat, but with flavor, and Sriracha does that well. We also use the sauce in our Dynamite Scallop Roll,” says Nevielle Panthaky, P.F. Chang’s vice president of culinary.
Even today, leading chains like Applebee’s find value in menuing it. Michael Slavin, corporate executive chef of product development, culinary innovation and menu development says, “We wanted to put a relevant, modern shrimp appetizer on the menu with a tangy, ethnic edge to it. Sriracha was the hands-down sauce choice from inception,” he says. “The earthy flavor of the fermented peppers with the pleasant spice level lends itself well to shrimp preparations. The name recognition, popularity and cult following of Sriracha sell the dish. Add crispy wonton strips and fresh, chopped cilantro and we have very happy guests.”
From Hot Sauce to Flavor Identity
The simple flavor profile of chiles, garlic and vinegar with a touch of sugar and salt has become one of the most sought-after flavors—much due to the fermentation of the chile mash to develop a full-flavored sauce with a kick. P.F. Chang’s chef Panthaky appreciates the layers of flavor the sauce brings. “It has a good balance and can be added to many applications without dominating them,” he says. “Plus, the color is vibrant and gorgeous.”
Sriracha has now become a flavor identity, not just a sauce, starring in items like Sriracha-lime vinaigrette, Sriracha potato chips, popcorn, jerky and even Sriracha hummus. A cadre of Sriracha spice blends has also hit the market, moving the flavor system from sauce to a spicy, garlic-intense, powdered chile. Sriracha in flake form is the latest entry into flavor delivery, offering a dehydrated product that preserves the nuances of this complex sauce. The flat particulates can be incorporated into doughs and batters and sprinkled over rice, french fries or noodles. This type of product shows the evolution of Sriracha, moving it from table sauce to recipe ingredient, with no end of its popularity in sight.