You ever been to a hot-sauce specialty shop? These are dimly lit little retail closets, typically in beachside vacation towns and the like, where you stare at shelves upon shelves of little hot-sauce bottles and have a chuckle at the menacingly hyperbolic product names and label imagery used to indicate the extreme pungency of the liquids contained therein. Nuclear Hell, with a sticker depicting a mushroom cloud rising above a splintering Old West-style outhouse; Satan's Blood, in a sinister-looking olde-tymey stoppered glass decanter-style bottle, with a leering red-skinned devil on the attached label booklet. You get the idea.
A common feature of these labels is an outrageous six-digit number of something called Scoville Units, the standard measurement of pungent heat in spicy foodstuffs. 900,000 SU! the label will say in shocked, blood-dripping font, and even if you're not familiar with the particulars of the Scoville scale, you're meant to gather from this that when you use this stuff in your chili, you will have to serve it with two spoons: one for eating with, and another for stuffing your internal organs back into your asshole. The wild outer variants of novelty hot sauce boast Scoville scores well above one million, comparable to those of riot-control pepper spray; you add them to your barbecue sauce by donning a spacesuit, opening the bottle, dipping the very tip of a toothpick into the liquid, holding the toothpick over your pot of barbecue sauce, and getting gunned down by the ATF.
And really, the novelty hot-sauce thing is mostly just in good fun, because I think we all understand that these are not actual sauces for human consumption so much as they are liquefied episodes of Jackass. I mention them here only because they've played a part in dragging our cultural conception of hot sauce seemingly inexorably toward the extreme, where the flavor and character of the sauce are not just secondary, but altogether irrelevant next to the measure of a sauce's pure heat. The barking-mad logical endpoint of this is pure capsaicin extract, which does not have a flavor so much as a physiological effect: that of dissolving all the soft tissue in your body and leaving behind nothing but a grinning skeleton.
There's nothing wrong with wanting to add pure, unadorned heat to a dish without changing its flavor, just like there's nothing wrong with adding plain salt or sugar to a dish. However, chili peppers are delicious, entirely apart from their pungency, and it's disappointing to see them reduced by most hot sauces to mere capsaicin delivery vehicles. Take even the more moderate, mainstream-y hot sauces—Tabasco, Texas Pete, Frank's. What do they taste like? Not chili peppers, but vinegar and salt.
The Foodspin archives: Chicken thighs | Popeye's biscuits | Salad | Candy corn Oreos | Chili | Red Bull Total Zero | French toast | Halloween candy | Emergency food | Nachos | Meatloaf | Thanksgiving side dishes | MacGyver Thanksgiving | Eating strategies | Leftovers | Mac and cheese
Enter sriracha. (And exit some inevitable number of drearily pinheaded anti-sriracha bores who prioritize the maintenance of their insufferable, all-rejecting past-that-ness over experiencing things that are good—congratulations, two-legged buckets of feces! You have persevered over enjoyment! Your reward is a gilded tube of Go-Gurt.) For the unacquainted, sriracha is the name of a type of fire-engine-red Thai chili sauce that is currently colonizing every last corner of planet Earth; most commonly, when people refer to sriracha, they are talking specifically about the Huy Fong Foods brand with the rooster logo on the bottle, and they are talking about this brand because it is the best thing in the entire world.
Here's what sets sriracha apart from what's typically sold as hot sauce (apart from the fact that you have to walk over to the "Asian" aisle at your supermarket to find it): it is an actual sauce, thick and rich and opaque, as opposed to flavorful vinegar; and it tastes, vividly and brightly and damn near erotically, of red chilis. Both of these distinctions arise from the fact that sriracha is actually made of pureed chilis, rather than simply infused with them. If you guessed that this means it's also furiously hot, you're fuckin'-A right it is. It is also deliciously garlicky and tart and sweet and salty. These attributes combine to make it the most inexplicably yet undeniably red-tasting thing I can think of. My wife says it tastes like exclamation points, and that's true, too.
If you're already familiar with sriracha, you likely first encountered it at a Vietnamese pho joint, where in short order you progressed from adding a tiny droplet of it to your peanut sauce to dumping an entire bottle of it into your soup and then sucking the dregs out of the bottle with crazed, spiral-eyed intensity. You accommodated your subsequent lifetime ban from the establishment by moving on to purchasing the stuff in bottles at your local supermarket. You now add it to everything that you eat—you're here today not so much for tips on what sorts of things to top with a generous squirt of sriracha, but in the hope that I might reveal which gauge of intravenous catheter to use for pumping it directly into your heart. To you I say that this entire column is secretly an invitation for someone to reveal exactly that down in the comments.
For those who are only now learning of sriracha, or those who are finally making the decision to try it, my impulse is to make a list of all the various foods that can be improved by a healthy dash of the stuff, but the fact is, in my experience, the only thing that isn't improved at least a little bit by putting sriracha on it is the human eyeball. Definitely don't put it on your eyeball. Not even if you're going to eat your eyeball, because, please don't eat your eyeball.
I guess that's not very helpful advice. You're looking to try sriracha, and you want some suggestions for how to introduce yourself to the stuff. An obvious and delicious answer is to hie thee to a pho joint or Thai restaurant and try it in the cuisines of its origin. A particularly fun thing to do is to see how the addition of sriracha changes (and improves) the sorts of things that might typically contain hot sauce as an actual ingredient. See how their flavors are brightened, enriched, livened up by swapping out the Frank's or Texas Pete or Tabasco or whatever for sriracha.
Add some to your barbecue sauce, your chili, your vegetable soup, your Bloody Mary. Stir some into your taco meat while it cooks in the pan; add another stripe of it directly to the taco during assembly. Whisk some into your homemade salad dressing, rémoulade, and Buffalo wing sauce. It's welcome in curry; it's divine in red beans and rice; it will send your salsa into goddamn orbit. Stir it into hummus. Fold it into butter; spread the butter on a tortilla; toast the tortilla in the broiler for a minute; die happy. Get some carryout sushi; stir some sriracha into a tablespoon of mayonnaise; dip; weep. Mix it into cake batter like some kind of apeshit mad-scientist superhero. Go fucking crazy! You can't lose!
Or, put it directly on things as a condiment. This is where I'd recommend moderate application at first—small, gorgeous little ruby-red dots of the stuff, here and there on your dish—both because sriracha is genuinely spicy, and because it is very bold and can overwhelm other flavors in a way that you might not appreciate in those first tentative minutes before you discover that it is the only thing you ever want to taste again in your life. On roasted chicken, steamed or roasted vegetables, grilled fish, ramen noodles, French fries. On pizza. Oh yeah. Scrambled eggs. Mmmmmm. Macaroni and cheese. Oh God. OhmyGod!
Ultimately, the thing to do with sriracha is to have fun with it. It tastes fun: bright and lively and happy, with that magical cherry tomato effect of bringing your palate and salivary glands to sudden, singing, dancing life.
People like to talk about how they want their eventual memorial services to be lively, celebratory affairs: Show a slideshow of funny moments from my life and tell stories and drink a lot and laugh a lot and do the chicken dance! It's a wonderful notion, but things rarely play out that way, for the obvious reason that those who survive their loved ones rarely feel so great about it in the immediate aftermath of saying goodbye. Few get to have fun funerals. As you embark on your sriracha adventure, spare a moment to congratulate boring old hot sauce on being one of them.
Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home. Peevishly correct his foolishness at email@example.com.
Photo by Jim Cooke.