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Cock of the Walk

Sriracha ain't just about rooster brand

By Mick Vann, Fri., Aug. 22, 2014

Cock of the Walk

Huy Fong

Ruling the Roost

It's August, season of the Southern California red jalapeño harvest, and chile-grinding time has come again to Irwindale's Huy Fong Foods. They produce the iconic rooster-branded Sriracha sauce with the red bottle and the green cap, named Bon Appétit's "Ingredient of the Year" in 2010. The nasal-sensitive residents will soon find out if the $600,000 air scrubbers that owner David Tran installed are performing their function.

The fierce hubbub started last fall, during last year's chile processing, when the city of Irwindale sued Tran's company to get him to remedy the problem. The irony, of course, is that Irwindale had gone to great lengths to get Huy Fong to build their new processing facility there the previous year. City Attorney Fred Galante claimed that a "strong, offensive chili (sic) odor ... requires residents to move outdoor activities indoors and even to vacate their residences temporarily." He called it a public health issue that required action, even if only a few residents had complained.

The battle waged through the fall of 2013. City consultants recommended an expensive air-purifying system, which Tran refused to install. Tran shot back by hanging a huge banner reading "No Tear Gas Made Here." Inspectors entered the fray and found no odors (although they tested when no chiles were being ground). City staff lawyers determined that jalapeño peppers weren't listed as legal airborne contaminants, so laws might have to be altered before the city could clamp down. The controversy raged on, and the courts further delayed action.

Denton, Texas, city council member Kevin Roden saw an opportunity. He petitioned Huy Fong to move to Little D, claiming that they had cheap land, shovel-ready sites far away from residents, cheap electricity, a fast-growing urban farm district, a central national shipping location, and "tons of college students seemingly willing to work for a daily supply of free Sriracha." Two dozen other cities around the country jumped on the bandwagon, all of which played perfectly into owner Tran's hand. California Governor Jerry Brown became concerned, worried about losing jobs, fresh chile sales, and taxes from a production run of an estimated 25 million bottles last year alone. He brokered a deal between Irwindale and Tran in April, calming the fuss. It was a win-win for Tran: sales skyrocketed when zealots started hoarding stockpiles of sauce, and Huy Fong got untold millions worth of free publicity. Tran played Irwindale like a Stradivarius.

Sriracha Alternatives

Ruffling Feathers

Cock of the Walk

Let's review. Huy Fong Sriracha (aka "rooster sauce") isn't made in Vietnam, but is instead produced in Southern California from jalapeños. It isn't even a sauce from Vietnam, but a highly-adulterated copy of a sauce from Thailand. The original Sriraja (pronounced see-rah-jah) sauce was created in the mid-Thirties by Thanom Chakkapak in the fishing village of Si Racha. She made it for family and friends, others tasted and loved it, and as fame grew, she started making it commercially. It eventually became the best selling chile sauce in Thailand, and in 1984 she sold the company to a major Thai food producer (the sauce is still bottled today).

The all-natural sauce uses prik chee fah chiles (brilliant red, with a heat level similar to a serrano) which are fermented over three months with vinegar, sugar, fresh garlic, and salt. A real Thai sriraja sauce is thinner, sweeter, milder (but with a lot more real chile flavor), more garlicky, and vastly more complex than the crude, overpowering, vinegary American-made Sriracha brand. Taste the two side-by-side and the differences easily emerge.

Of the available Thai brands, several can be found locally at MT Supermarket (10901 N. Lamar) and Hana World Market (1700 W. Parmer), or ordered online. Shark is complex and very well balanced; not too sweet, vinegary, or spicy hot, and complimentary to everything. Good enough to drink – and the favorite of most serious Thai food aficionados. Sriraja Panich is garlicky, with a delicate balance of sweet-tangy, and loaded with complexity. Grand Mountain has balanced vinegar and sugar and plenty of garlicky support. Chuew Huad is thinner and sweeter than most, but has good chile punch. Polar is thicker and spicier than the norm; fresher-tasting than rooster sauce, but similar in profile. Double Chicken is a Shark knock-off in a rooster-copy bottle; a smart business move, but it is loaded with preservatives. Por Kwan is thicker and spicier, with a slight chemical after-taste; the clear loser of the lot. If you're a rooster fan, you should really give Polar a try, but in my practiced view, my top three trump the rooster brand any day, on anything.

Still, Americans dump rooster sauce on everything, a culinary crime according to my Vietnamese chef pals, who feel it smothers the taste of complex broths and sauces. The devotion to the Americanized Sriracha is especially egregious considering how easy it is to make. Thais use their original version of the sauce many ways. Sriraja sauce is used with fresh seafood, almost like we might use cocktail sauce; icy fresh oysters, spicy-sweet Sriraja sauce, and bitter neem tree fronds or tamarind leaf is a favorite combo. It goes great with fried seafood, cutting through the fat while accenting the ocean flavor. Many Thais add it to a number of dipping sauces, which get used with just about everything. The original Thai style of Sriraja sauce plays like a symphony, with all parts working together in harmony. When I compare it to Huy Fong, I'm reminded of the jolting cacophony of a cock screaming his head off at 4:30am. Maybe David Tran didn't get everything right, after all.

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