On the Bay of Bangkok's eastern shore, a six-hour drive from the Cambodian border lies the Thai city of Si Racha. Eighty years ago, it was here, according to Bon Appétit's Andrea Nguyen, that Ms. Thanom Chakkapak, a local housewife, first blended a paste of red chili peppers, vinegar, garlic, sugar, and salt into a viscous sauce to complement her family’s meals. In those early days of the 1930s, when Ms. Chakkapak's sauce didn’t even have a name, there’s no way she or anyone else could've predicted that the concoction would one day explode in popularity to become one of the region's bestselling condiments, much less a cultural touchstone in a country on the opposite side of the world.
Today, the term "sriracha" (pronounced "sir-ah-cha") serves as a catchall classification for a wide variety of red chili sauces, each a variant on Ms. Chakkapak's original blend. In the United States, the term most commonly refers to the clear-bottled, green-capped product that’s been made by David Tran’s Huy Fong Foods since 1980. In this respect, "sriracha" isn’t so dissimilar from "ketchup," another viscous red condiment, which in the minds of most Americans is synonymous with Heinz.
And just like ketchup, which is so ubiquitous that it's begun to inspire a wide array of up-and-coming varietals, the explosive success of Huy Fong’s chili sauce makes it easy to envision a similar future for sriracha — both for the Rooster-bottle type already found on most supermarket shelves, and also for the bumper crop of new, hybridized versions catering more directly to Western palates.
But why sriracha, and why now? The simplest answer is that it’s delicious, but that’s only part of the story. The driving force has really been immigration. Since David Tran emigrated from Vietnam to the United States in 1978, and then started purveying the sauce in 1980, the Asian American population has risen more than 455%; since 2000, the U.S. Census notes that Asian Americans have become the fastest-growing racial/ethnic group in the country. Nowhere has this demographic shift been more pronounced than in California, where more than 6.1 million Asian American residents constitute the nation’s largest Asian population. It's not a coincidence, then, that Huy Fong, headquartered in Los Angeles, has had no trouble establishing a domestic consumer base. In fact, the company has proved so successful that to this day it's never paid for any advertising campaigns, and it doesn't even maintain official social media accounts. (A Facebook link on the company's website directs to a dead end).
Going further, it's evident that the burgeoning success of other Asian foods has in recent years helped sriracha cross over from specialty item to dietary fixture. In cities across the nation, pho and steamed pork bun shops can scarcely open quickly enough to keep up with demand. By the end of next month, my apartment in Baltimore will be within biking distance of three different places specializing in ramen — that’s exactly three more than there were when I moved in two years ago.
All this in mind, it was with great delight that I recently set out to take stock of the sriracha selections available in American markets. Specifically, I wanted to take a look at how the chili sauce is being adapted, combined, and in some cases reinvented for wider appeal. I wanted to know which variants best leant themselves to American kitchens. Which ones can travel farthest away from noodles? Thinking of no better place to begin, I laid out a simple rubric: Which versions of the sauce are best suited for chicken wings and fries/tater tots?
I began by identifying the contenders, and separating them into two groups. On the wing side, my choices were Tabasco Sriracha Sauce, Stubb’s Texas Sriracha Anytime Sauce, La Sriracha Macha’s “Mexican Sriracha” Sauce, and Sweet Baby Ray's Sriracha Wing Sauce and Glaze. Included in this category as well was McCormick Sriracha Seasoning. On the fries/tater tots side, I went with Heinz Sriracha Ketchup as well as two offerings from Lee Kum Kee: Sriracha Chili Ketchup and Sriracha Mayo.
Once the field was set, I invited some friends over to conduct a taste test. Here's how it went.
THE WINGS (aka The Bake Test):
The only flavor combination I'd rank higher than chicken and hot sauce is peanut butter and chocolate, and to be honest, even that might be a little too close to call. And with all due respect to the fine citizens of Buffalo, the reality is that numerous types of hot sauces will do. From traditional mainstays of Tabasco and Crystal to more exotic versions like Cholula and, of course, sriracha, almost any variant is sure to please. At a certain point, you’re really just splitting hairs.
So for my experiment, I needed to prepare the wings in the same way using each sauce, thus making it so that all variables were controlled and the individual flavorings could shine forth on their own.
To do this, I poured ample amounts of the sauce (and in McCormick's case, the seasoning) into five re-sealable plastic bags. Into each bag, I added between six and eight wings. I then sealed the bags and let them marinate for four hours in the fridge.
Once they were nicely coated, I heated the oven to 350 degrees and lined them up on two foil-covered baking sheets. Taking care to distinguish where one sauce’s batch ended and another began, I baked the wings for 80 minutes, taking them out only once so I could flip them during the final 20 minutes.
Completed, the hot wings each took on a distinct appearance owing to the sauce in which they were marinated. The wings coated in McCormick Sriracha Seasoning, for example, appeared a deep Tandoori red. The wings coated in Sweet Baby Ray’s Sriracha Wing Sauce looked glazed and shiny. In each case, the wings were delicious — uniformly spicy, although to varying degrees, and each distinct from the other.
After tasting them all, here are the notes, ordered from most traditional to most exotic.
Tabasco Sriracha Sauce – Tabasco’s take on sriracha sauce is direct: Make sriracha sauce almost exactly the way everyone else does, and then add Tabasco to it. While the first taste might be a bit more garlicky than one’s used to, this is a sauce that’ll be immediately familiar to most Americans, especially when it comes to the backnotes, which display that enduring, traditional Tabasco burn. On our chicken wings, Tabasco Sriracha Sauce turned in a solid performance, and the heat stood up to the baking process. These were the most orthodox of the chicken wings I made in this batch, and definitely a crowd-pleaser.
McCormick Sriracha Seasoning – The sriracha spice rub created by McCormick is, at first glance, an alarmingly bright shade of red. Opening the container to take a sniff, the aroma can be almost overwhelming. Indeed, one thing about this stuff is clear: Handle with care because it’s serious business. That in mind, it may have been a bit naïve of me to think that it’d be OK to coat a chicken wing entirely in the stuff — to cake it on as though it were Old Bay — because the resulting product was incredibly spicy. Fortunately, I prepared a couple different versions of the wings with this seasoning, each using a different amount. What worked the best was a solid sprinkling — think approximately a teaspoon’s worth per wing. This resulted in a deep, Tandoori-red hue on the baked skin, and it maintained a high level of heat that finished with a really delicious garlic afternote. This seasoning isn't for wimps.
Stubb's Texas Sriracha Anytime Sauce – Immediately what stands out about Stubb's Texas Sriracha Anytime Sauce is that it's much thinner than the sriracha types you know. As a marinade, that’s a good thing because it thoroughly coated the chicken wings, and left not a single part uncovered. After baking, the heat mostly diminished from the taste — it was still recognizable, but faintly so — and in its place a more buttery, savory flavor endured. This was a pleasant surprise, and made me immediately wonder about baking an entire chicken in the stuff. Overall, the Stubb's Texas Sriracha Anytime Sauce will appeal most to sriracha novices who might be intimidated or put off by the traditional sauce’s spiciness. Stubb's might be the best way to introduce them to that distinct chili flavor.
La Sriracha Macha’s “Mexican Sriracha” Sauce – If you imagine Los Angeles as sriracha’s entry point into the United States, then you’ll understand how La Sriracha Macha was born. Drawing on traditional Mexican and Latin American flavors, La Sriracha Macha, which is sold directly on the company’s website (as well as Amazon), has an incredibly deep flavor profile. It’s that level of depth — bolstered by a distinct smokiness, and a sweetness of the apple vinegar at its base — that makes the sauce so versatile. Indeed, the chicken wing experiment may have been too simple for this sauce, which was so intriguing that multiple guests took the bottle and squirted it onto just about everything they could find: the wings themselves, celery, cauliflower, and tater tots. It’s easy to imagine the sauce shining brightly on anything from a sandwich to a pasta dish to a breakfast burrito. By the end of the night, everyone raved about La Sriracha Macha. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the only negative thing about it is that it comes in such a small container.
Sweet Baby Ray’s Sriracha Wing Sauce and Glaze – Obviously a sauce explicitly intended to go with chicken wings will perform the best in a chicken wing test, but even accounting for that advantage, the Sweet Baby Ray's Sriracha Wing Sauce and Glaze was better than expected. Thick and syrupy, the sauce is sturdy enough to endure a low and slow baking process, and the taste really plays up the sweetness at the heart of traditional sriracha sauce. While the level of heat is relatively low, the overall taste is satisfying and complex, and you'll note a smoky, paprika-like finish with each bite. You should invite this one to your next barbecue.
THE FRIES/TATER TOTS (aka The Dip Test):
In addition to baking the sriracha-based sauces on chicken wings, I also wanted to know how the condiments held up as simple dips. For this, I went to the most dippable item on any menu: the French fry. (We also considered tater tots because we wanted something a bit heartier that could stand up to repeated dunking.)
After thorough examination, here's what we found:
Heinz Sriracha Ketchup – Sriracha's marriage to the most famous ketchup is a happy one, although you'll need several dips to fully appreciate it. This is because the blend's spiciness accumulates slowly, taking its time to overpower the sweet and bitter components of its ketchup base. (A while back, Malcolm Gladwell correctly noted that what makes ketchup so successful is how it plays on all five of our basic taste senses.) Eventually, though, a subtle, savory burn will sink in, and you’ll want to dip your fries, tater tots, or whatever you’ve got to keep it burning longer.
Lee Kum Kee Sriracha Chili Ketchup – Unsurprisingly, the sriracha ketchup produced by a ketchup manufacturer (Heinz) tastes more like ketchup than it does sriracha sauce. And also unsurprisingly, the Sriracha Chili Ketchup produced by Lee Kum Kee, a sriracha manufacturer, tastes much more like a traditional sriracha sauce than it does ketchup. Both versions had their fans, but I personally favored Lee Kum Kee's Sriracha Chili Ketchup because it played up on the sauce’s signature spiciness, and let the chili taste run the show. As an added bonus, the sauce's consistency — slightly more liquid than a traditional ketchup — ensured that anything you dunked into it wouldn't be over-coated. Instead you'd come away with exactly the right amount of sauce after each dip. This is a good thing because you’ll want the bottle to last.
Lee Kum Kee Sriracha Mayo – At the risk of sounding un-American, I'll come right out and say that I've always felt the Belgians had it right: Mayonnaise goes better with French fries than ketchup. That said, there's a limit to how many fries I can dip into mayo before the entire affair becomes an unexciting blur. That’s because ordinary mayonnaise just isn’t complex enough to make me keep going. Enter: Lee Kum Kee Sriracha Mayo, which brings a welcome element of heat to the mix. This is a condiment for people who want all of the savoriness and spiciness of sriracha without too much of the sweetness. Not only was it great to dip in, but it also lends itself nicely to sandwiches. This one will be in my personal rotation for years to come.