Food

Sriracha is the Secret Sauce in Kitchens

Chandra Ram

Is there a kitchen in America that doesn’t have a bottle of sriracha in it somewhere, even if it’s just for family meal? I doubt it. Bottles of “rooster sauce” are everywhere—on the table at Asian restaurants, tucked in the kitchen at French and American restaurants, even in the Milky Way, since NASA started buying it to help astronauts whose taste buds were dulled by space enjoy their food.

But where does this sriracha come from? California, of course—the place that gives an extra-warm welcome to immigrants who bring with them delicious things to eat. In 1980, David Tran, a Chinese immigrant who had moved from Vietnam to the U.S., settled in Los Angeles and began making sriracha sauce, named for the town in Thailand where the sauce is said to have originated. His recipe was similar to that for the sauce he had made and sold in Vietnam, a simple mix of jalapeños, vinegar, garlic, sugar and salt. Tran put a rooster on the bottle because it represented his birth year in the zodiac, and then he began selling the inexpensive sauce to Asian restaurants in Chinatown.

Sooner or later, Asian cooks working in non-Asian restaurants brought bottles to work to spice up family meal, shared the sauce with their white counterparts, and sriracha made its way from Asian mom-and-pop restaurants to American fine dining to mainstream pop culture. These days, you can buy sriracha underwear, sriracha shoes, sriracha air fresheners, even sriracha lip balm. Even Bart Simpson eats sriracha.

But for all the kitsch surrounding it, sriracha is a workhorse in the kitchen. At restaurants where I worked, it was literally our secret sauce, the thing we added to a gazpacho, aïoli, guacamole, even a creamy soup. It bumped up flavors and, used in moderation, took the food from OK or good to great. Sriracha became hugely popular, then survived the inevitable backlash that occurs anytime an ingredient becomes inspiration for stunt food (like when a Thai chili sauce is used to make chocolate mousse), and it’s come back to become as ubiquitous as mustard or mayonnaise. Best of all, it’s a reminder that the next great thing in food can come from anywhere.

I was "deflowered" by Rooster sauce in 1990 by the pantry Chef at a local French restaurant. She taught me to call it Kickin Chicken sauce. I have bottles of the infamous elixir literally everywhere. At work (of course), home, friends homes, relatives homes.....I even keep a bottle in my car. The pretender sauces that cropped up inevitably are good but not the same.

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