Who Owns Sriracha?

Chefs are challenging the famous “rooster” brand with their own versions, as Mama takes the sauce back to its Thai (not Vietnamese) origins.

In Ferment: Wanida "Mama" Phansuwam, chef/owner of Topaz Thai in Belleville, uses modern implements to create her old-fashioned sauce, said to have been invented in 1949 in the Thai beach town of Si Racha. Unlike Huy Fong's reigning "rooster" sauce, real Thai srirachas are fermented, she says.
Photo by Erik Rank

You know a niche product has gone mainstream when it turns up where you least expect it. Last summer, the Bent Spoon, Princeton’s much-lauded artisanal ice cream shop, featured Peach Sriracha sorbet, made with Terhune Orchard peaches and Huy Fong brand sriracha hot chili sauce.

Huy Fong? You know it on sight: The bright green cap on the clear plastic bottle, the brick-red sauce making the white lettering and rooster logo stand out. Or you know it by its logical nickname, rooster sauce.

Created in a downtown Los Angeles warehouse in 1980 by David Tran, a Vietnamese immigrant of Chinese heritage, Huy Fong sriracha took many years to squirt its way to ubiquity. “It started as an L.A. Asian-restaurant hot sauce,” says Randy Clemens, author of The Sriracha Cookbook (2011). “Then it became the hipster ketchup. Now it’s a national craze.” Bon Appetit magazine decreed sriracha the 2010 Ingredient of the Year. It became the subject of a Kickstarter-funded short documentary, Sriracha, by Griffin Hammond, that won raves at seven film festivals this year and can be downloaded for $5 at vimeo.com/ondemand.

Bent Spoon isn’t the only Garden State eatery to embrace the rooster. At Chakra in Paramus, chef-owner Thomas Ciszak mixes Huy Fong sriracha into mayo or aioli to perk up sushi rolls, sandwiches and as a dip for french fries. “I like its sweet yet tangy flavor,” he says. “It’s not too acidic, the way most hot sauces are.” At the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station, head barkeep Andrew Johnson admits, “Sriracha was our secret Bloody Mary ingredient. Was. Customers wouldn’t stop asking [what that special flavor was].”

But as inevitably happens when a food craze turns a specialty into a commodity—Wal-Mart has stocked rooster sauce for years—chefs take matters into their own hands. At Topaz Thai in Belleville, known for its authentically incendiary dishes, chef-owner Wanida “Mama” Phansuwam makes her own sauce, which she describes as “real sriracha, which is Thai, not Vietnamese.” In fact, Si Racha is a shore town on the Gulf of Thailand, and as Hammond reports in his documentary, the sauce was created there in 1949 by a Thai woman who then started making it commercially.

Real sriracha, insists Mama, as she prefers to be called, has “no chemicals, no sour taste.” She says she makes hers with chili peppers “that I bred myself, from a species of small red Thai chilies that I brought back from Thailand.” Rooster sauce is sweetened with white sugar. Mama uses Thai palm sugar, from the palm tree, “which has its own flavor, rich and fragrant, almost like pandan leaf.”

Rooster sauce is not fermented, but Thai srirachas, including the original, are. In Mama’s recipe, the yeast in the palm sugar is the fermenting agent. Her sauce ferments for 12 days in jars in Topaz Thai’s kitchen. “Fermenting smooths sriracha’s sharpness and gives the sauce a blended taste,” she says. She sells her sriracha at the restaurant in medium and hot strengths (8 ounces, $6; 16 ounces, $10).

At Salt Gastropub in Stanhope, chef Bradley Boyle makes his sriracha with local peppers. “I used rooster sauce for years,” he says. “But I wanted to use Jersey peppers for a Jersey sriracha. I like it hot, but smooth. It’s a great flavor in all kinds of sauces and marinades.”

At Crystal Springs Resort in Sussex County, executive chef John Greeley says he produces his own sriracha “with red chili peppers, some habañero from the [resort’s] garden and spring garlic, which adds a sweet note.” He ferments the sauce for two weeks, with salt as the fermenting agent, then ages it for two to three months in charred oak barrels “for mild smokiness. My sriracha is spicy, with a mellow tone of garlic, a light vinegar tang and hints of wood. It’s a bit deeper in color after the barrel aging.”

Greeley uses it in three dishes at the resort’s Crystal Tavern: smoked duck salad, smoked pork banh mi sandwiches, and as a dip for his chilled seafood platter.

At the newly opened Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen in the former Vail Mansion in Morristown, executive chef Kevin Sippel makes sriracha from Thai chilis grown at Ralston Farm in Mendham. The farm’s co-owner, Bennett Haynes, “brought back and planted heirloom chiles from northeastern Thailand,” says Sippel. “They have adapted well to New Jersey soil and growing conditions and have become a new varietal of their own.”

In Jockey Hollow’s sriracha, Sippel says, “the natural sweetness of roasted, caramelized garlic stands in for sugar.” The blend is aged for three months in bourbon casks, “which adds a smoky flavor and mellows out the heat,” he says. “It’s an elegant sriracha, made in Jersey with Jersey products by Jersey residents. Carbon footprint: six miles.”

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