Huy Fong sriracha (source: NPR)
As much as I try to resist the urge to be a know-it-all (and recognize the fact that I don’t, in fact, even know that much – especially about the very things most worth knowing), occasionally I have to get all Bobby Fletcher (the famous checkersmaster) and drop some science of the sort that’s right under your nose. It’s 2013 and everyone loves sriracha now, dear but few have their facts straight.
THE RISE IN VIETNAMESE FOOD’S PROFILE
The Hanoi Cooking Center (image source: Global Travel Mate)
In the last decade or so, masses of semi-adventurous, non-Vietnamese Angelenos discovered Vietnamese cuisine. While many non-Vietnamese Asian-Americans had long known about Vietnamese food (and the rooster sauce that is ubiquitous at Southern California Vietnamese restaurants), Vietnamese food’s profile skyrocketed when they it when white folks declared it the new Thai.
Overnight these pasty palatal pioneers proclaimed their undying passion for phở (although they oddly defied Vietnamese convention by eating it primarily at lunch and supper times). In American Vietnamese restaurants they first encountered Huy Fong’s sriracha sauce and they eagerly squirted copious amounts of it directly into their soup, obliterating its flavor in the process, showing off their hipness and cluelessness in equal measure. Eventually some of these foodie types discovered bánh mì too, which they probably paid about eight dollars for because they waited for Vietnamese food to come to Silver Lake and Echo Park rather than venture to its natural environs in San Gabriel Valley or North Orange County. Seemingly after every last Angeleno formed an opinion on cock sauce its legend traveled to Houston and New York.
SRIRACHA’S LOUDENING BUZZ
Sriracha’s popularity has skyrocketed in the past few years. Bon Appétit named sriracha “Ingredient of the Year” in 2010. In 2011, Randy Clemens published The Sriracha Cookbook. Illustrator Matthew Inman celebrated the sauce with a comic that included a predictably cod-Asian caption “Sriracha, you are a delicious blessing flavored with the incandescent glow of a thousand dying suns.” In 2012 sriracha was added to the Oxford English Dictionary – making rendering my use of italics unnecessary (although tellingly, spell-check is still unhappy). Griffin Hammond is currently making a documentary about it, Subway offers a “creamy” version of it, it’s been mentioned on The Simpsons, and Lay’s introduced it as a flavor of potato chip. There are sriracha smartphone cases, greeting cards, lip balms, air fresheners, and women’s shoes graced with its image. The bandwagon includes sriracha-inspired memes, Halloween costumes, web comics, and regrettable tattoos.
source: Cool Material
Like the latest, insurance-shilling, “whoa whoa” singing band of guys in V-necks, Huy Fong has managed to retain hipster cred despite at this point being utterly and completely mainstream — an American version of a Asian condiment — analogous to La Choy in the world of soy sauce. I have heard pretentious sorts who, dismayed by the sauce’s ubiquity, actually proclaim (tongue-not-apparently-in-cheek) that they “liked sriracha before it was cool.” When Hammond’s documentary hits YouTube, someone will try to impress older views by commenting that even though they’re only 11 or 12, they like sriracha too (and invariably add that, presumably unlike their peers, they have no use for Justin Bieber/Lil Wayne/Nicki Minaj). Food writers will scamper to discover “the next sriracha.”
THE TRADER JOE’S CONTROVERSY
Trader Joe’s “sriracha” (source: Cooking with Trader Joe’s)
Everything was fine and dandy for most sriracha supports until Trader Joe’s unveiled a hot sauce they dared to call “sriracha.” LA Weekly commenters were particularly aghast. “At least come up with a different name, this is just a shameless imitation,” shrieked one reader. “The original little-guy Sriracha maker is gonna get screwed,” wailed another. Others cried “Accept no substitutes, there is only one original!,” and “Huy Fong forever!!” Generally there was a lot of”wailing and gnashing of teeth that one ypically associates with First World Problems.
HUY FONG — ORIGINAL LITTLE-GUY SRIRACHA MAKER
By now the story of Huy Fong is well known and oft-repeated. It was founded by David Tran, a Hoa immigrant who came to Boston aboard a ship called the Huy Fong. Back in Long Binh, Saigon, Tran began making sauces in 1975 whose bottles he decorated with the image of a rooster – his astrological sign. After relocating to Los Angeles in 1980, he began making his now familiar rooster sauce in Chinatown. He perfected the recipe in 1983 and soon it appeared on nearly every Vietnamese table in the (South)land. To meet the growing demand he expanded and relocated operations to Rosemead in 1987. After non-Vietnamese began to getting addicted to it, Huy Fong moved to an even larger facility in Mordor-like municipality of Irwindale.
Huy Fong has been celebrated by many food writers since. Absolutely Fobulous’s Suzie Leung wrote “we AbFob girls love the Vietnamese hot sauce.” OC Weekly’s Vickie Chang incorrectly wrote that “Siracha was created by 66-year-old David Tran.” A writer at Disgrasian wrote “Huy Fong’s is the O.G. of Sriracha sauces.” OC Weekly’s Michelle Woo even referred to Huf Fong’s factory as “Sriracha ground zero,” and has called Trader Joe’s and other companies’ srirachas “imposters.”
EXPANDING THE WITCH HUNT
Soon vigilant inquisitors discovered even more brands of sauce masquerading as “sriracha.” Food writers James Ho, Jennifer Lai, and Emily Rothschild called Vietnamese company Vi Hao’s version (with a unicorn on the label, blue instead of green cap, and the words “Vi Hao” clearly printed on the container “counterfeit” and warned readers to be vigilant of others.*
THE SRIRACHA TRUTH REVEALED
I mention these writers’ names to show that none are apparently Thai. So what, right? As another teeth-gnasher screamed “Sriachi [sic] is VOTENAMESE [sic] not Thai. Sheesh.” The problem is that, in addition to none of the above being Thai, none are correct. Apparently none bothered to do much research on the subject of their passions either. Wikipedia’s earliest entry for “sriracha” appeared in 2006 and began, “Sriracha is the generic name for a Southeast Asian hot sauce from Thailand, although one of the most famous brands is American. It is named after the seaside town Si Racha, where it was first produced as a local product.” Not that you should trust everything that you read on Wikipedia or anywhere else but in this case, that information is correct.
source: Cheap Appetite
Years ago my neighbors the Banphaburuts told me that sriracha was a Thai sauce and not Vietnamese (or Vietnamese-American). I had my doubts. I’d never seen sriracha at any Thai restaurant and the bottle says right there in Vietnamese, “Tương Ớt Sriracha.” I reviewed my limited knowledge of the Vietnamese and Thai languages. “Sriracha” sounds nothing like any Vietnamese word in my limited vocabulary (which is about the equivalent of that of a slightly slow Vietnamese two-year-old) and does sound rather a lot like Thai (though my Thai vocabulary consists of little more than numbers, pronouns and a few key words like “spicy” and “ladyboy”). Knowing that not everything appropriated by Vietnamese culture is Vietnamese in origin (e.g. cognac and Italo-disco), I was without much difficulty able to overcome my cognitive dissonance.
SRIRACHA’S REAL GROUND ZERO
source: Thai Smile
It seems somewhat likely that no one person can truthfully claim to have single-handedly invented sriracha any more than anyone could, say, do the same with ketchup (which, interestingly, also emerged from Southeast Asia). Si Racha (ศรีราชา), is a town in Thailand’s Chonburi Province. If any one person can claim legitimately claim to have invented it, it’s probably Thanom Chakkapak, who began selling her Sriraja Panich over 80 years ago. It was mostly used as a dipping sauce for seafood (in other words, she probably didn’t squirt it into phở). Sriraja Panich is still manufactured today, although it was acquired by a larger company (Thai Theparos — makers of also great Golden Mountain sauce) in 1984.
Since there are few things in this word better than Thai food, I began seeking out more varieties of Thai srirachas. In general I find that Thai srirachas tend to be sweeter, tangier, often hotter, and generally have a more complex flavor profile than Huy Fong’s Americanized version (which Tran, it should be noted, has never claimed to be the original sriracha — unlike most of those who write about him). There are numerous other brands made in China, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, The Philippines, Vietnam and of course, Thailand. Other popular Thai brands include Crying Tiger, Double Rooster, Flying Goose, Grand Mountain, Green Mountain, Por Kwan, and Uni Eagle. In Los Angeles, Thai markets like Silom in Thai Town or LAX-C in Dogtown (or pan-Asian Ranch 99 Supermarket which has locations in Anaheim, Arcadia, Artesia, Buena Park, Gardena, Hacienda Heights, Monterey Park, San Gabriel, and Van Nuys) carry other varieties – in addition to Huy Fong.
THERE CAN’T BE ONLY ONE
source: Sriracha for breakfast
Huy Fong will likely remain synonymous with sriracha in the way Band-Aids, Coke, Jello, Kleenex, and Xerox are with their associated products. It’s actually a fine sauce, I reckon, and I probably wouldn’t have bothered to write this post if I didn’t think that hot sauce fans could benefit from more varieties in their lives (and if so many of the writers and commenters weren’t — in addition to being wrong — so damned shrill and sanctimonious!)
Branch out, make your own, and get your facts straight before leaving comments — especially misspelled, mis-informed, and in all-caps. Better yet, don’t comment. And for heaven’s sake don’t limit your hot sauce stock to just sriracha. As the saying goes, “no man can live on sriracha alone!” Try some Tapatio, freak out on some Frank’s, jump on Jufran and for God’s sake don’t get tattoos of fleetingly faddish condiments.
*Huy Fong has been the victim of counterfeit although unless something other than Huy Fong is pretending to be Huy Fong (which Vi Hao isn’t) then it’s no more counterfeit than Hunt’s ketchup is a counterfeit of Heinz or Puffs is a counterfeit of Kleenex.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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