The search for Sriracha

One man’s take on Thai hot sauce has won legions of fans worldwide, but the LA-made condiment is tricky to find in the Land of Smiles

The Thaiteparos factory is located on a quiet and dusty highway in Samut Prakan, close to a crocodile farm, a school and not much else. There, in a complex of grey, block buildings, the company manufactures and distributes some of Thailand’s best-known sauces and dips, the kinds you can find in any household, grocery store or 7-Eleven. Theirs is the business of condiments — soy sauces, ketchups and vinegars, under two main brands: Golden Mountain and Sriraja Panich.

illust ration: Nattaya Srisawang

Inside, on an end-table in the lobby, stands a careful arrangement of the company’s Sriraja Panich sauces. The centrepiece is a tall glass bottle, with a yellow label in Thai declaring it as the “original recipe”. To its right and left are the sauce’s newer versions, packaged in 280g plastic squeeze bottles, with labels in English, Mandarin and Vietnamese.

Paweena Kingpad, the company’s export manager, tells Brunch that few of these bottles make it to the US. Americans just aren’t used to the taste. She has with her, however, another Sriracha sauce, one that is ubiquitous in the States, but almost impossible to find in Thailand.

Huy Fong Foods Sriracha is not sold here, and the only bottles to be found are within the homes of Thais who have intentionally brought them in from abroad.

“Of course we have this sauce,” Ms Paweena said. “We have to, to see how it tastes.”

She presented two small dishes and two spoons: “We want you to see how it tastes yourself.”

Of all the Thai food products that have made their way to the US, none have reached such cult status as Sriracha. Bon Appétit magazine named the hot sauce the 2010 ingredient of the year. An unofficial Facebook fan page lists 82,000 followers. Celebrity chefs swear by the sauce; cookbooks have even been written around it. And it’s so popular that companies such as Heinz and Tabasco have started creating their own versions.

Unfortunately, however, no Thai can take credit for the sauce’s popularity. At the heart of Sriracha’s success is David Tran, a Vietnamese immigrant who adapted and created his own version of the sauce in the 1980s.

Mr Tran’s story has become the stuff of legend, perhaps because it so embodies the American dream: he fled Vietnam in 1979, and started creating the sauces in LA in 1980. Armed with only his hot sauce bottles and a minivan, he cornered the Asian-American market, selling his sauces to Vietnamese restaurants that needed an extra kick for their pho. Bit by bit, the hot sauce caught on.

By 2009, Mr Tran was selling 10 million bottles of Sriracha sauce a year. In 2013, that number doubled to 20 million.

Today, the Huy Fong Foods brand — its flavour, texture and even the design of its bottle — has become the paradigm for Sriracha sauce in the States.

The magic formula is a mix of chilli (specifically red jalapenos), sugar, salt, garlic and distilled vinegar, plus potassium sorbate and sodium bisulfate as preservatives, and xanthan gum as a thickener. For many, this is the perfect combination, in perfect proportions.

The sauce is so loved that when a lawsuit threatened to close the Huy Fong Foods factory last year, lamentations and odes to the sauce flooded the internet, filling food blogs, magazines and international news outlets. Some called it the #Srirachapocalypse.

Mr Tran’s success is undeniable, but he also did something else: in the course of making Sriracha a global phenomenon, he changed the flavour.

The Huy Fong Foods Sriracha hits the senses with its spiciness; Thai Sriraja Panich smacks of sweetness, its flavour more sour and garlicky.

“It tastes really different, doesn’t it?”

“I don’t know about you, but all I can taste is the jalapeno,” said Bancha Winyarat, Thaiteparos’s deputy managing director. “It’s too overpowering.”

Thaiteparos, like many other sauce companies in Thailand, is trying to figure out how to respond to the Sriracha craze in the US. Walk into a supermarket in Bangkok and the varieties of Sriracha sauces available is striking. Many of the sauces have adopted a similar design to the Huy Fong Foods version, using a round plastic bottle and a squeeze top. Some advertise themselves as “extra, extra hot” and “authentic Thai”.

Hot competition: Many Thai Sriracha sauces have adopted a similar design to the Huy Fong Foods version. PHOTO: Pornprom Satrabhaya

“I do think the Sriracha craze is a good thing. I see it as a promotion for Sriracha — what David Tran did, no Thai could ever do,” said Mr Bancha, who oversees much of Thaiteparos’ export activities.

“There’s no way that we can compete with Huy Fong Foods. But we do think that there must be a niche market for the original Sriracha sauce. There must be some people out there who know there’s something more true, more original, more Thai than the Huy Fong Foods Sriracha.”

Mr Bancha said Thaiteparos plans to market Sriraja Panich as a more original, “cleaner” version of the sauce that includes no MSG, thickeners or preservatives. The only problem, the Thaiteparos team says, is that the flavour of Huy Fong Foods Sriracha is imprinted on the minds of Americans.

“It’s what they want to taste. That’s the taste they’ve associated with Sriracha already,” said Ms Paweena. “So when they taste our product, they don’t like it. Even the way they use it isn’t the same.”

But the company is not disheartened. “I still believe that Thais will like the taste of Thai Sriracha, and while we can adjust the spice, we shouldn’t have to adjust the flavour profile,” Mr Bancha said. “But we might work on the label and make it more American friendly.”

Mr Bancha and his team aren’t the only Thais who baulk at the Huy Fong Foods sauce. For many Thais who have grown up with Thai Sriracha, the Huy Fong Foods version tastes wholly unfamiliar. Nor do they understand the appeal of the sauce in the US.

“Huy Fong Foods Sriracha is a sauce that sounds like the one we have in Thailand, but doesn’t taste like it at all,” said 29-year-old Wannita Makaroon, who lives in New York. “It’s a sauce that I don’t think fits Thai food, but Americans want it on everything, especially in Thai restaurants. They pour it on everything until it dominates the whole flavour.”

Jennifer Coulter, 22, agreed it’s overpowering. “I think it tastes nasty,” said Ms Coulter, who grew up in Thailand. “I prefer the orange chilli sauce you find in Thailand, or even dry chilli powder. I shy away from it all the time.”

But there are also others who crave the Huy Fong Foods version. Alex and Mam Somphone, who own the Vietnamese and More restaurant in Klong Toey, say that they love the sauce so much that they even tried to make it on their own.

“It’s such an essential ingredient, especially for pho,” said Alex, who was raised in Los Angeles, where Sriracha sauce was a staple in almost every Vietnamese restaurant. “I’ve been having Sriracha sauce for so long that when I use it, I know exactly what it tastes like.”

Mam, who is Thai, said she initially found the Huy Fong Foods Sriracha strange, but after having it with pho in the US, she understood the pairing. She’s found that Thais who have been abroad tend to request the sauce much more than Thais at home.

“Personally, I don’t think [American] Sriracha suits the Thai taste or understanding of Sriracha. We’re much more used to the sweeter sauce we use for fried food,” Mam said. “I do think it’s a little strange that Americans love Sriracha sauce so much, but I guess it’s not all too different from Thai people putting ketchup on everything.”

Ever since Mr Tran popularised Sriracha sauce, Americans have grown more curious and confused about its origins. Is Sriracha sauce Thai, American or Vietnamese? “I considered Sriracha a Thai sauce when I made my version,” Mr Tran explained in an email. “There were already Srirachas in the market when I started making my style. I took the original Sriracha and made it enjoyable to my taste.”

Visit the Huy Fong Foods website and you’ll be greeted with an anthem that makes the sauce’s origins crystal clear: “It’s the chilli garlic sauce, made in America!” But for the casual consumer, the Huy Fong Foods bottle gives few clues. The label is written in English, Vietnamese, Chinese, French and Spanish. And the name seems Thai.

PHOTOS: 123RF AND ARCHIVE

Even for LA natives like Linda McKeith Lam, 22, Sriracha sauce’s origins were fuzzy. “Isn’t it a Thai-made sauce, marketed to the Vietnamese?”

Perhaps it is more complicated. Thanks to Mr Tran, there are now two origin stories to tell — and they’re surprisingly similar.

The story that most of us know is Mr Tran’s multibillion-dollar success. The older story was examined in a 33-minute documentary, called Sriracha. Film-makers Griffon Hammond and Randy Clemens travelled to Si Racha, Chon Buri in search of the original creator of their beloved sauce.

The story Hammond and Clemens were looking for is that of Thanom Chakkapak, who created the first version of the sauce in the 1930s. Much like Mr Tran, she made the sauces at home and shared them with friends. With their encouragement, she started selling the sauces, to immense success.

But because Sriracha sauce was named after an actual place, there was no way Thanom or Thaiteparos, which acquired her company, could secure the rights to her product. It’s the same problem Mr Tran faces now with imitations of Huy Fong Foods and the various spin-off products cashing in on its success. Of course, if it had been licensed, Mr Tran would not have been able to make the famous product.

In a Dean & Deluca cafe in Central Embassy, nestled next to imported English teas and mints, are several bottles of hot sauce that, at first glance, could almost pass for Huy Fong Foods Sriracha. The bottle is the same clear and round plastic design, with a squeeze top. Even the lettering looks the same. The only real differences are the red cap and the words: “Original Sriracha Chilli Sauce.”

The distributor, Bangkok Sauce, is a small family-run company with fewer than 100 employees. The only sauce they make is Sriracha.

Thapakin Timkrachang, CEO of Bangkok Sauce, said the similarity between his sauce and the Huy Fong Foods version ends with the plastic bottle. Otherwise, the two are completely different.

“The Huy Fong Foods Sriracha isn’t like Sriracha at all,” said Mr Thapakin, who added his family has been making Sriracha for years. “It doesn’t taste like a Thai sauce, and it’s something you can tell immediately. They’ve caused this huge misunderstanding.”

Mr Thapakin said he sells his versions of the sauce outside the US, but knows there’s no way he can compete now. He said it would be no problem if Huy Fong Foods started distributing the sauce in Thailand.

“In the end, it’s sauce — if they want to make it, then they can.”

And could Huy Fong Foods be distributing in Thailand soon? Maybe. “As of now we do not have a distributor in Thailand, but there is a potential buyer,” said a representative. “If all goes well we will eventually have a product in Thailand.”

Take your pick: The Huy Fong Foods Sriracha hits the senses with its spiciness. The Thai Sriraja Panich, on the other hand, smacks of sweetness, its flavour more sour and garlicky.

The ultimate taste test

In Thailand, Huy Fong Foods Sriracha sauce is met with a mix of bewilderment, envy and, depending who you ask, ignorance. Some Thais have never heard of Huy Fong Foods Sriracha — probably because the sauce is not available here — while others covet it so much that it’s one of the first things they request from Thais returning from abroad. With so many conflicting opinions on the sauce, Brunch decided to undertake the ultimate taste test and find out who does it better: LA or Thailand.

Three sauces were put to the test: Huy Fong Foods’ Sriracha, Thaiteparos Sriraja Panich, and Sriracha Chilli Sauce Extra Hot, manufactured for export by Suree International Foods.

We looked around Brunch HQ and chose six subjects — two foreigners and four Thais — who would taste three different types of Sriracha sauce. We did not tell our subjects which were which, though we did let them see what the sauces looked like, figuring that a blind taste test could get a little messy, to say the least.

Of all the stunning scientific revelations uncovered, the most significant was that it all depends on what you eat it with. Sriraja Panich fit perfectly with omelettes for most people, but it didn’t fare so well with other things — especially dumplings (kanom jeeb). The Huy Fong Foods Sriracha tended to taste better with a wider variety of things.

THE VERDICT: Huy Fong Foods Sriracha was the clear winner, four votes to two, suiting a wider variety of food. Two votes went to Sriraja Panich, with none for Suree’s version.

Do you like the content of this article?
  COMMENT