Cooks are not complicated creatures. A steady stream of in-depth articles, books, and television shows have attempted to ferret out our secrets, which is a little like using quantum physics to understand a transistor radio. We like food, dive bars, and loud music, basically in that order. And we love sriracha.
Sriracha, an addictively spicy, garlicky chili sauce, holds a special place in cooks’ hearts. You will find in almost every professional kitchen in the country, from four-star temple of gastronomy to neighborhood dive. It may not be on the menu, but it’s always around when we cook for ourselves. We put it on everything we eat, from eggs to rice, stews, soups, and stir-frys. I have heard tales of sriracha brioche and sriracha Bloody Marys. Years ago one of my cooks made sriracha lemonade, which, frankly, was a bit beyond the pale. But it does show the intensity of our devotion to the stuff. There is no better way to throw a kitchen staff into a deep and sustained funk than to run out of sriracha.
The genesis of sriracha’s popularityin the United States is straight out of the immigrant-success-story textbook. David Tran came to the U.S. from Vietnam, eventually landing in Los Angeles in 1980. He couldn’t find a chile sauce that he liked, so he decided to make his own. Los Angeles has a strong Mexican community that loves jalapeños, but typically uses them when they’re green. Tran bought the red, ripe jalapeños that the farmers would have otherwise thrown away, and made them into a pepper sauce that he sold out of the back of his van. As his following grew, he moved into a processing facility in suburban Rosemead and began adding other sauces—sriracha, named after a traditional Asian chili sauce from the seaside town of Si Racha, Thailand, was his third, and by far his most successful. Tran’s company, Huy Fong Foods, now sells over 10 million bottles of it a year.
When I visited the Huy Fong plant, I paused for a moment outside the front door, the Southern California heat rising off the pavement, thinking that this must be how ancient explorers felt before entering a sacred temple. Inside the cool, clean warehouse is a stack of 55-gallon drums, which hold the chiles that are the base for the sauces. The jalapeños are contract-grown on nearby farms, and as they ripen they are brought to the factory, where they are pickled in salt, vinegar, and preservatives. The color of the sauce varies from batch to batch according to the ripeness of the chiles, which is highly unusual in a processed food.
The gleaming machinery that turns the chiles into sauce is largely custom-built. William Tran, David’s son (and now the president of Huy Fong), describes his father as a tinkerer. “If he wasn’t making hot sauce, he’d be designing equipment,” William says, with a chuckle. They even started making their own bottles, which (along with other innovations) has made the sauce less expensive to produce. In turn, they cut prices rather than increasing their profit margins. “We want to make a rich man’s sauce at a poor man’s price,” he explains.
While no one disputes the deliciousness of the sauce, there is some contention regarding its origin. “The sriracha sauce is not traditional,” claims William Tran. “My father made it to satisfy his own taste.” Pim Techamuanvivit, the author of The Foodie Handbook and blog chezpim.typepad.com, disagrees. “It’s the same Thai sauce that I grew up with,” she says. “It’s like taking ketchup to China and saying that you invented it, and, coincidentally, decided to call it ketchup.” Perhaps, but it’s Tran’s American-made sauce, not the imported versions, which has captured Americans’ imagination and palates.
Provenance aside, I came away from my meeting with the Tran family extremely impressed. David Tran’s sauce has rightfully earned a place on the tables of cooks everywhere. And, as a small restaurant owner, I love their values. They haven’t sold out to a multinational corporation. They haven’t expanded too quickly. They are hard-working, humble, and focused on quality.
After my visit, I had some chef friends over for a sriracha potluck. Everyone made a dish using the sauce, and we ate and drank into the night, relishing what cooks love most of all—the simple pleasures of the table.