By Shari Littan
Sriracha is a chili sauce that results from the combination of simple ingredients: chili peppers, garlic, salt, sugar, and vinegar. In the U.S., the sauce gets its name from the region in Thailand where it originated, though many people refer to it as "rooster sauce" or "cock sauce." Sriracha has become known through the wide distribution of the sauce produced by Huy Fong Foods in California, which originally sought to satisfy the local Asian market. Chefs, always looking for new flavors, discovered the condiment and began to incorporate it in various dishes.
According to Jolene Collins, founder and owner of Love of JoJo, a Brooklyn-based producer of artisanal sriracha, the key difference between sriracha and other hot sauces is the fermentation process — many other styles of conventional hot sauces do not use fermented peppers. Although these other sauces have their place in the culinary spectrum, Jolene explains, chilies in their raw state can give a sauce heat but hide the other nuances in the pepper. Common hot sauces also can have a more acidic or vinegar taste and a thinner consistency than sriracha, which is closer to the thickness of ketchup. The fermentation process makes the heat of the peppers more subtle and brings out more complex flavors. For example, after proper fermentation, fiery habanero peppers also have citrusy, fruity notes. A producer can use slightly different variations of chilies or other ingredients to achieve a particular flavor profile.
It is more by chance than intent that Jolene became fascinated with producing sriracha. While living in Denver, she decided to eliminate all refined sugar from her diet. She unhappily discovered that Huy Fong's sauce, her favorite at that time, contained not only refined sugar but also some preservatives. Not willing to give up her favorite condiment, Jolene began trying to make her own sauce. Since then, she's been on a four year experiment of working with different types of chilies and ingredient balances. The consistent, noticeable improvement in her product inspired her to keep going.
After settling in New York, Jolene developed relationships with some of the farmers who produce and sell peppers at the Greenmarket. Getting to know the producers gave her access and information about different types of peppers and their flavor profiles. Her sriracha became so good that friends encouraged her to launch a business.
One of the hardest parts about transitioning from hobby to business, in Jolene's view, has been the administrative work. Particularly, food production businesses have higher upfront compliance costs than other start-ups. In addition, as a young company, finding commercial kitchen space in the City can be challenging. It is critical, however, to get these aspects done right so that the business can establish itself with greater ease.
As a sriracha producer, Jolene provided some insight into the well-publicized problems Huy Fong has faced from their new neighbors in Irwindale, California, a small city near Los Angeles. During the 2013 harvest and fermentation season, neighbors complained that the fumes of company's processing of 100 million pounds of peppers filled the air, causing physical irritation, such as watery eyes and acrid coughs. Jolene explained that these peppers have a short harvest season, so production must be concentrated into a short period of time. The volume overwhelmed Huy Fong's neighbors. As of January 2014, the matter has not been settled.
On the smaller and more local scale, Jolene is proud of her sriracha's unique flavor. She emphasizes the quality of the ingredients and the care that goes into her product. She compares good sriracha with wine. Yes, there are large-scale commercial producers; the taste of each sauce, however, is unique from the chilies and other ingredients used and the balance brought out by an individual sauce-maker.
Shari Littan is a former Slow Food NYC board member and occasionally writes about sustainability and food issues.