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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

From humble beginnings to fan favourite: the growing popularity of sriracha

We examine the growing popularity of sriracha, a hot sauce that has its own documentary, showcasing its history and early origins

A man dressed as a bottle of sriracha at Coachella Valley Music and Arts festival. Getty
A man dressed as a bottle of sriracha at Coachella Valley Music and Arts festival. Getty

By Griffin Hammond’s own admission, Tabasco outsells Sriracha in the United States, while peri-peri, à la Nando’s, has likely been around for longer. Why, then, did the independent American filmmaker dedicate an entire 33-minute documentary, Sriracha, to this particular hot sauce?

“It struck me as rather weird that there could be so much excitement over a particular product, and yet such a lack of knowledge about its origins and contents. So I decided to find out for myself,” says Hammond, who was in the UAE last week. “Despite not being the most sold hot sauce in the US yet, no other product enjoys the same level of fandom and passion as sriracha,” he adds.

A front-row seat at the screening of his short film in Abu Dhabi amply proves Hammond’s point. That the production crew would only seek out those with sriracha-attuned taste buds for a film based on the subject is, of course, a given. However, the numbers don’t lie; the endorsements range from the obsessive to the downright bizarre; and one even discovers that entire songs have been dedicated to the sauce.

The story of how it began

Facts first. The documentary delves into the story of David Tran, a Chinese-Vietnamese immigrant who came to America aboard the infamous Huey Fong ship in the late 1970s, having lived on board for more than a month after being denied entry into Hong Kong.

Soon after he arrived, Tran began missing the foods and flavours he was used to back home, which led to him making his own hot sauce using red jalapeño chilli peppers, garlic, a dash of vinegar, salt and sugar. So popular was his version of sriracha among his family, friends and neighbours that Tran started a small business, filling those first bottles one spoon at a time.

The chief executive of Huy Fong Foods, David Tran. Getty
The chief executive of Huy Fong Foods, David Tran. Getty

Eventually, Tran gathered enough cash and confidence to open his own factory in Rosemead, California, producing 3,000 bottles an hour, labelling them Huy Fong sriracha. Soon he was selling out all of the 70,000 bottles produced each day, and so he moved operations to a larger space in the city of Irwindale, much to his distributors’ delight.

“I sometimes wonder where in the world all of this sriracha is going, who is eating so much?” Tran tells Hammond in the documentary. A slight and soft-spoken man with a gently lilting accent, Tran wears his successful businessman’s cap with an easy grace. The 650,000-square-foot state-of-the-art factory he now runs has the capacity to produce 18,000 bottles an hour – and that’s on just one of multiple production lines: Huy Fong Foods, recognisable by its jaunty rooster of a mascot, also does a chilli garlic and sambal oelek sauce.

Fans pay homage

“I use rooster sauce on everything,” declares one fan in Sriracha. “Pastas, pizzas, eggs, soups, sandwiches. I’ve even tried it on ice cream.” Another reveals that he smuggles his own bottle into restaurants and even wedding receptions – but then inevitably ends up sharing it with the rest of the table.

In addition to featuring the rather inventive lyrics penned in homage to sriracha, by artists such as Cosby Sweater, Rusty Redenbacher, Liam Taylor and Si Pettit, the documentary also captures the gushing messages left on the Huy Fong factory’s phones from foodies who thank Tran for creating this “cult icon”. Interestingly, many callers aren’t sure about its pronunciation (the i is a long ee, and the first r is silent), which harks back to Hammond’s point that most people are not aware of the sauce’s backstory.

One production line at the company's factory produces 18,000 bottles an hour. Getty
One production line at the company's factory produces 18,000 bottles an hour. Getty

Sriracha touches upon the fact that Tran’s version – which he based from his time in Vietnam – is not the first or the original recipe. The sauce was born in a place called Si Racha in Thailand, by a stay-at-home mum, Thanom Chakkapak. Although the two versions share the same, un-trademarked name, the Thai sauce is thinner in consistency and sweeter in taste compared to its bolder, spicier and more internationally popular ­Vietnamese-American counterpart.

Sriracha in the UAE

Most UAE supermarkets, too, stock the latter, including Tran’s Huy Fong brand, with Spinneys reporting that it sells close to 7,500 litres of the sauce annually. Chef German from Bu, the Latin American restaurant at World Trade Centre Mall Abu Dhabi, says: “I like the way sriracha increases the flavour of our hot and cold dishes, at a mid-spicy level. Some hot sauces have a lot of vinegar, while some others feel a bit ‘artificial’. But sriracha is neutral, which really allows us to play with its flavours.”

The company uses special peppers for its sauce. Getty
The company uses special peppers for its sauce. Getty

The sriracha craze has also trickled into other arenas – from flavoured jams, lollipops and drinks, to ­sriracha-inspired shoes, bags and clothes, tongue-in-cheek advertisements by independent creatives, as well as, of course, Hammond’s award-winning documentary.

The filmmaker was in the UAE as part of his role as envoy for the American Film Showcase body, which brings independent movies made in the US to viewers around the world, usually in association with the American embassy in each country. Accordingly, Hammond was here to host a dozen screenings of his 2014 documentary, as well as to interact with filmmaking students across the Emirates.

“I found that audiences could be quieter and a bit more shy here, at least ­initially. But they turned out to have some great questions in the end. As with students around the world, young people in the UAE were keen to know how they can make a film with cheaper equipment or work with what they already have. I shared my techniques with them, and also did sessions on filmmaking using a smartphone,” says Hammond. “A common theme that emerged here was that several students asked me if my father worried about me going into a creative career field. There’s clearly a desire among students in the UAE to pursue entrepreneurial and artistic endeavours, but filmmaking is viewed as a risky career prospect.”

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Read more:

What makes Sriracha sauce such a hot hit?

All hail the mighty peppers, and use gloves when cooking with them

Huy Fong sriracha lands in Benghazi, Libya; next up, UAE and Qatar

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Hammond shares with us a portion of an email from a student from the American University in Dubai: “Today, you showed me in many ways that it is okay to be non-­traditional and different, which I am sincerely grateful for. I left the workshop hopeful and very excited to start my own documentary about something that I love and that is made with passion,” it reads.

“I always recommend that students accept stable jobs, but work on passion projects on the side. Sriracha was a passion project – because I’m a big sriracha lover myself – but it’s led to exciting career opportunities that I could have never foreseen,” continues Hammond.

“Students often ask if my film had any impact on sales of sriracha. While I can’t say for sure, I have found that every single person who was not familiar with the product before, always says that the first thing he or she did after watching the documentary was to go out and try it.” And thus another fan is born.