Arts, Culture & Media

The story of how one hot sauce, Huy Fong Sriracha, got so hot

This story is a part of

Global Nation
Updated:

This story is a part of

Global Nation

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You've probably seen it on the table at a Vietnamese restaurant. Maybe even put some in your pho soup. You might even have some in your own fridge. It's that bottle full of bright red chili sauce with the green cap and the picture of the rooster. And it's called Huy Fong Foods, Inc. Sriracha.

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Ever wonder where it comes from? Here's one hint, it's not Vietnam.

Sriracha is bottled in a factory in Rosemead, Calif., just outside of Los Angeles. The man behind the sauce is David Tran.

Tran is very a private man — hardly ever gives media interviews — but journalist Roberto Ferdman, from the online news site Quartz, was able to track him down and talk to him about his famous hot sauce.

Tran immigrated to the US from Vietnam in 1979. He left Vietnam on a freighter called the Huy Fong and eventually came to the United States. And that became the inspiration for the name of his company. 

Shortly after arriving to the US, he relocated to southern California when he discovered a source for red jalapeño chilies to make his sriracha. He began by peddling his (UPDATE) version of Thailand's "Sriracha" hot sauce to the local Vietnamese community in Los Angeles. Last year, according to Ferdman, the company sold more than 20 million bottles. So how did Tran launch one of the hottest hot sauces in the business?

Perhaps the secret is in the sauce itself?   

According to Ferdman while most hot sauces are made with dried chilies, Huy Fong's secret is fresh jalapeño chilies. Fresh chilies means the factory must be near where the chilies are grown and the sauce must be bottled within days of picking them.

You'd think in the days of processed food and frozen ingredients — that sort of freshness would be worth advertising. However, the comany has never spent a dime on advertising since Tran started making the sriracha the 1980s. In fact, says Ferdman, the company can't advertise.

"Since they rely on using fresh chilies they can't make bottles of sriracha unless they have enough chilies and they haven't been able to produce enough chilies to meet demand," said Ferdman.

"If he were to advertise he would basically tempt more people into wanting to buy sriracha and upset a bunch of people who wouldn't be able to get the product because there isn't enough of it," he added.

So the secret to sauce may just be Tran himself. He's been approached by investors to sell his business but he's always said no.

"The main driver of his enthusaism about the company and his continued involvement in it is his love for the sauce and his love for making it," said Ferdman.

So, how do you use your sriracha?

I like mine with rice and Spam. Yes, Spam.

Let us know in the comments below.

Update: We changed the body of the article to clarify that sriracha sauce originates from the district of Si Racha, east of Bangkok in Thailand. The original sriracha sauce from Thailand has a different look and taste than David Tran's version for Huy Fong Foods, which was inspired by the sriracha sauce he tasted growing up in Vietnam.