Way before sriracha (pronounced: SIR-rotch-ah) became the most crowed about sauce, the choice of condiment of hipsters—affectionately called the “rooster sauce”—a sleeve’s trick of top chefs, I’d discovered it.
I found sriracha when it was only a sauce in a bottle, years before Bon Appetite magazine named it “Ingredient of the Year” in 2010. I discovered it, of all places, in a sedate, plain, all-white Midwestern university town, with a population under 20,000.
A few weekends after my move to Brookings, South Dakota, after I’d tired of eating tuna melt sandwiches, pasta with Alfredo sauce, chicken quesadillas, roasted ham, I drove 75 miles to Sioux Falls, on a crisp, autumn day, in search of a store, where I could buy anything that’d give some kick to my food. I wanted to the tart up my pantry with some Asian spices, herbs, pickles, chutneys, purée.
In an underdeveloped section of the town, I spotted an ordinary Asian grocery store. I parked my Mercury Topaz, and walked into the dimly-lit belly of the store. Bottles, jars, tubs, and packets, with logographic labeling in Chinese, stood on its ordinary racks.
I picked out the bottle, which held a thick, bright red sauce. Some instinct told me that it’d have an intense flavor. After that day, one always found it in my fridge. Not too long after that, I recall encountering it everywhere.
The NYT devoted a full-length feature to it on May 20, 2009, in which it said that it’s not an authentic Asian chili sauce. It’s neither Thai, nor Vietnamese as some American consumers believe it to be.
The truth is that sriracha, as manufactured by [the California-based] Huy Fong Foods, may be best understood as an American sauce, a polyglot purée with roots in different places and peoples.
The plastic bottle, with the trademark green cap and the rooster logo, has left Heinz ketchup in the dust, its relevance extending from food trucks to epicurean kitchens; from the table of a greasy dumpling house in Chinatown to a dipping sauce in a suburban Applebee’s. Even Wal-Mart sells the stuff.
The secret to its soaring popularity is its unique “sweet, garlicky heat” that works its flavor mojo on just about everything savory. One can spice up mayonnaise with it or enjoy it as a relish for burgers.