By now, you’ve probably tasted sriracha. What started as a simple Thai condiment has since exploded into a worldwide phenomenon, and the only way to have not tried it by now is to have actively avoided it. A thing of cultish devotion, some people never leave home without some handy. But even if you never encounter a food you don’t deem sriracha-worthy, we bet there’s a lot you didn’t know about this now-legendary condiment.
Si Racha is a small coastal city in the Chonburi Province of eastern Thailand, where the sauce may have first been produced.
In Thailand, sriracha is tangier and thinner than its Vietnamese (and American) counterparts, and is primarily used as a dipping sauce for seafood. In Vietnam, it’s thicker and more garlicky, and is used as more of an all-purpose condiment for everything from pho to spring rolls.
Sriracha was still relatively unknown in the U.S. when Vietnamese entrepreneur David Tran founded Huy Fong Foods in 1980. Over the next three decades the sauce grew in popularity from cult favorite to certified fad as production and distribution steadily increased, and now it’s gone mainstream.
Tran started making sriracha in 1975 in Vietnam, but because he was an ethnic Chinese, Vietnamese authorities cracked down on his family, forcing him to flee to Hong Kong with 3,000 other refugees on a Taiwanese freighter in 1979. The name of the freighter was Huey Fong, and Tran modified the name when he founded his company in California the following year.
The chile pepper used in Huy Fong sriracha is the red jalapeño, but don’t think that eating the sauce carries the same heat intensity as popping a jalapeño into your mouth. The pepper loses a lot of its heat during the manufacturing process, so the sauce is only about as spicy as a banana pepper.
Some people call sriracha “rooster sauce” because of the rooster on the Huy Fong label. It’s there because Tran was born in 1945, the Chinese Year of the Rooster.
An insane amount of sriracha is made at Huy Fong’s California factory on a daily basis: 3,000 bottles an hour, around the clock, equaling about 200 tons every week. About 20 million bottles of the stuff are produced annually.
In 2013, residents of Irwindale, Calif., where the Huy Fong factory is located, began complaining of heartburn, headaches, and watery eyes due to a spicy odor emanating from the plant, and threatening to sue. It dragged on for nine months before the Irwindale City Council decided to drop it. Today the factory remains something of a tourist attraction.
2013 was the peak of the sriracha craze, and it was during that year that a 30-minute documentary about sriracha was crowdsourced and produced by filmmaker Griffin Hammond. The film, which tells the story behind the sauce, went on to win awards at a handful of film festivals, and you can stream it online for $2.99.