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Behind World’s Most Popular Hot Sauce

Behind World’s Most Popular Hot Sauce

A closer look at the unique story of David Tan, who's been producing Huy Fong Sriracha hot sauce since 1979 after leaving Vietnam for California.

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How many hot sauces can boast that they’ve been the subject of a feature documentary? And how many products, of any variety, sell as much as can be produced, and would sell twice as much, or more, if more were made? The answer to both questions is Huy Fong sriracha, a sweet hot sauce with demand that so far exceeds the supply that the company cannot produce enough, and chooses not to produce too much, to ensure both quality levels and mystique. It has inspired entire food festivals dedicated to its use, a lively line of merchandise, and an army of dedicated fans who put it on just about everything.

Randy Clemens has produced several cookbooks dedicated to this key ingredient. The bottle has been seen in photos in the international space station. A rock song features the lyrics Sriracha is good on anything while a hip-hop song croons So hot, like sriracha hot. It is most commonly added to Asian dishes like pho or to eggs, and it is what makes Japanese spicy tuna roll sushi “spicy” (mayo mixed with sriracha dolloped atop the sushi), but it shows up in surprising places, like ice cream sandwiches, jams and lollipops.

The origin of Sriracha

The story and the sauce (pronounced “see-rah-chah”) fascinated Griffin Hammond enough that he shot a documentary film on the subject, starring the founder of Huy Fong Foods Inc., David Tan. When he was 30, Tran experienced the fall of Saigon in his native Vietnam. As an ethnic Chinese, he was discriminated against and encouraged to leave the country. He left on a ship called Huey Fong, eventually making it to the US. Once there, he decided to make a hot sauce reminiscent of what he enjoyed back home, catering to the Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants in California, who liked to spice up their pho. He started small, filling glass bottles of the sauce by hand, with a single spoon. He also dumped fresh chilis into a processor by hand, and the juices would run down his arm. Not only was this uncomfortable, but it made him hesitant to hold his infant daughter, for fear of burning her.

Where is Sriracha From

There is a place in Thailand that is the origin of the sauce. Specifically a woman called Thanom Chakkapak began to make what she called “sriraja” in a place in Thailand called Si Racha. There the pepper used is prik chee fah, not jalapeno, and it is fermented before crushing, so the resulting product is different. These days there are hundreds of versions available, but none with the success and ubiquity of Huy Fong. When people think of sriracha, they think of Huy Fong brand—without always knowing it. The brand is so ubiquitous, especially in North America, that no other brand has a significant market percentage. In Europe, you might inadvertently buy the perfectly good Flying Goose brand sriracha, which has a bottle and design that imitates the Huy Fong version (the Huy Fong rooster logo on the bottle is the symbol of the year of Tan’s birth).

What is inside Sriracha sauce

Rosemead, California is the site of the Huy Fong Foods Inc. factory, which produces exactly three products. The hot sauce, chili garlic, which is essentially sriracha sauce minus the sugar, and sambal oelek, which is just the chili paste. All use the same jalapeno chili mash (the chilis crushed and mixed with vinegar and some salt). Craig Underwood’s entire 1750 acre farm is dedicated just to producing chilis for sriracha, with 48,000 tons recorded in one year—100 million pounds of peppers. 20 million bottles were sold in 2010. The original factory in Rosemead, California produced 3000 bottles an hour, running 24 hours a day, six days a week (at least 70,000 bottles a day). That’s a lot of hot sauce. But perhaps most impressive: they sell out of everything they make, and Tan is confident that if they made twice as much, heck, they’d sell out of that, too.

He’s proved himself correct. They recently moved to a larger factory in Irwindale, California where 18,000 bottles can be produced and filled per hour—on just one of several assembly lines. Every year of its existence, sriracha sales have increased by at least 20%. And a final amazing fact: Tan has never once paid for advertising for his product. Word of mouth and the passion of his consumers is what raises those sales figures every year.

Tan’s is the ultimate hard-work-pays-off American dream story, from humble immigrant entrepreneur to millionaire mogul, all thanks to an extremely tasty single niche product. There is a mind-bogglingly constant demand. I love the stuff, but I buy one bottle, use it fairly regularly, and it still lasts me a good 4-6 months. So how much must other people consume, to go through so many bottles a year? Part of the wonder of the product is its simplicity: chili, garlic, sugar, a bit of salt and vinegar. That’s it. It is universally agreed-upon, regardless of what you’re eating. A Texan is as likely to put it on his morning eggs as a Japanese on his sushi, a Vietnamese on his pho, or a Brooklyn hipster on his donuts. Invented in Thailand, beloved of the Vietnamese and a product made by an ethnic Chinese, it is a red hot melting pot in a red and green bottle. No wonder there’s a t-shirt going around that reads: “I put sriracha on my sriracha.”

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