Hot Stuff in a Squeeze Bottle

This morning, as usual, I scanned online newspaper to start my day “enlightenment” about what’s going on today. I prefer online newspaper and magazine than the conventional paper-based one, because for me its more convenient and also it continuously updated with the current news. I really like and would like to recommend these to you: New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times (because I live in California, this one is ample enough to update me about local news), USA Today, US News & World Report, WSJ, Newsweek, Time Magazine, BusinessWeek, and TimesOnline UK. And for the newsfeed I like what CNN, BBC, CBS MarketWatch, and NPR displays their news. Sometimes, some of the nice-and-interesting-eye-catching articles and news that I read there I posted in this blog and my other blog as well (more about business-like blog).

So, this article that I read in NYT this morning pretty much grab my attention. Its about a chili sauce that is very well-knows for Asian people here in U.S.. Yes, it is about Sriracha. I bet every Asian people here (esp. in California) knows about this red squeezable bottle chili sauce, that happened to be always there to accompany me to eat “baso” (meatballs), and mi instan (I will not endorse brand name here although I bet you know what is the good instant noodle), and other asian cuisine. Back to the article, the article is written by John T. Edge, and published in May 19,2009 in the newspaper. For me this article is like an information, a history of the product and family that involved in the business. Here is the excerpt.

BY THE BARREL OR BOTTLE David Tran's sriracha sauce in a market in San Gabriel, Calif.
BY THE BARREL OR BOTTLE David Tran's sriracha sauce in a market in San Gabriel, Calif.

Some American consumers believe sriracha (properly pronounced SIR-rotch-ah) to be a Thai sauce. Others think it is Vietnamese. The truth is that sriracha, as manufactured by Huy Fong Foods, may be best understood as an American sauce, a polyglot purée with roots in different places and peoples.

It’s become a sleeve trick for chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

At the restaurant Perry St., in New York City, Mr. Vongerichten’s rice-cracker-crusted tuna with citrus sauce has always relied on the sweet, garlicky heat of sriracha. More recently, he has honed additional uses. “The other night, I used some of the green-cap stuff with asparagus,” Mr. Vongerichten said. “It’s well balanced, perfect in a hollandaise.”

In Houston, at the restaurant Reef, Bryan Caswell, a veteran of Mr. Vongerichten’s kitchens, stirs sriracha into the egg wash he uses to batter fried foods, from crab cakes to oysters to onion rings. “It’s not heavily fermented, it’s not acidic,” said Mr. Caswell, who has won a devoted following for the sriracha rémoulade he often serves with such fried dishes. “It burns your body, not your tongue.”

Sriracha has proved relevant beyond the epicurean realm. Wal-Mart sells the stuff. So do mom-and-pop stores, from Bristol, Tenn., to Bisbee, Ariz.

Recently, Huy Fong’s sriracha found its place in the suburbs. Applebee’s has begun serving fried shrimp with a mix of mayonnaise and Huy Fong sriracha. They followed P. F. Chang’s, another national chain, which began using it in 2000, and now features battered and fried green beans with a sriracha-spiked dipping sauce, as well as a refined riff on what both Applebee’s and P. F. Chang’s call dynamite shrimp.

For Mr. Tran, of Chinese heritage but born in Vietnam, neither sriracha-spiked hollandaise nor sriracha-topped tacos with kimchi translate easily.

“I made this sauce for the Asian community,” Mr. Tran said one recent afternoon, seated at headquarters, near a rooster-shaped crystal sculpture.

“I knew, after the Vietnamese resettled here, that they would want their hot sauce for their pho,” a beef broth and noodle soup that is a de facto national dish of Vietnam. “But I wanted something that I could sell to more than just the Vietnamese,” he continued.

“After I came to America, after I came to Los Angeles, I remember seeing Heinz 57 ketchup and thinking: ‘The 1984 Olympics are coming. How about I come up with a Tran 84, something I can sell to everyone?’ ”

What Mr. Tran developed in Los Angeles in the early 1980s was his own take on a traditional Asian chili sauce. In Sriracha, a town in Chonburi Province, Thailand, where homemade chili pastes are favored, natives do not recognize Mr. Tran’s purée as their own.

David Tran, foreground above, with his son, William, at the Huy Fong Foods warehouse in Rosemead, Calif.
David Tran, foreground above, with his son, William, at the Huy Fong Foods warehouse in Rosemead, Calif.

Multicultural appeal was engineered into the product: the ingredient list on the back of the bottle is written in Vietnamese, Chinese, English, French and Spanish. And serving suggestions include pizzas, hot dogs, hamburgers and, for French speakers, pâtés.

I know it’s not a Thai sriracha,” Mr. Tran said. “It’s my sriracha.”

Like many immigrants of his generation, David Tran’s journey from Vietnam to America was epic. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Mr. Tran’s travel, and the travel of his family members, was fueled by chili sauces.

From 1975 onward, Mr. Tran made sauces from peppers grown by his older brother on a farm just beyond Long Binh, a village north of what was then Saigon. The most popular was an oil-based sauce, perfumed by galangal, a pungent relative of ginger. (Mr. Tran intended it as a dip for beef plucked from bowls of pho, it was more popular as a sauce for roasted dog.)

Though he never devised a formal name for his products, Mr. Tran decorated each cap with a rooster, his astrological sign. Production was family focused. Mr. Tran ground the peppers. His father-in-law washed the sauce containers, reusing Gerber baby food jars obtained from American servicemen. His brother-in-law filled the jars with sauce. Itinerant jobbers bought the sauces from Mr. Tran, and sold them to shops and other informal restaurants.

By 1979, many of the Tran family’s friends were leaving Vietnam. “I had enough money saved to buy our way out,” he said.

To limit potential losses, Mr. Tran split the family into four groups: One group went to Indonesia, another to Hong Kong. A third went to Malaysia, and a fourth to the Philippines. David Tran traveled on a freighter, the Huy Fong. Everyone ended up in United Nations refugee camps, before the family finally began to regroup.“I was in Boston,” Mr. Tran recalled. “My brother-in-law was in Los Angeles. When we talked on the phone, I asked him, ‘Do they have red peppers in Los Angeles?’ He said yes. And we left.” “I landed the first week of January in 1980,” he added. “By February, I was making sauce.”

Mr. Tran did not anticipate the popularity of his take on sriracha. He believed the sauce to be good. He took pride in the augers and other apparatuses he designed for the plant. He liked to tell people that all he did was grind peppers, add garlic and bottle it.He figured that immigrants of Vietnamese ancestry would stock his sriracha at pho shops. He hoped that the occasional American consumer might squirt it on hot dogs and hamburgers. He could never have expected what he found, one recent afternoon, as he trolled the Internet in search of what fans of his sauce have wrought.

Mr. Tran scanned pictures of 20-something women in homemade Halloween costumes designed to resemble the Huy Fong bottle. He navigated to one of two sriracha Facebook pages, the larger of which has more than 120,000 fans.

He retrieved a favorite picture, of Travis Mason, a 36-year-old coffee salesman from Portland, Ore., who commissioned a tattoo of the Huy Fong logo on his left calf. “I’m always interested in what they do,” Mr. Tran said, his voice filled with genuine wonderment.

Over the last decade, a number of imitators have entered the sriracha category. A recent visit to grocery stores in the San Gabriel Valley, near the Huy Fong headquarters, yielded Cock brand sriracha from Thailand, Shark brand from China, Phoenix brand from Vietnam and Unicorn brand, also from Vietnam.

Each brand included its namesake animal at the center of the bottle. Some copied Huy Fong’s signature script. Others employed similar green caps.

The competition has proved no great hindrance to Huy Fong sales. In 1996, the company expanded, adding processing and storage capacity to meet demand. More than 10 million bottles of sriracha now roll off the Rosemead line each year. With the purchase of a nearby warehouse, the company has begun storing its peppers where Wham-O once manufactured those icons of pop culture, Frisbees and Hula-Hoops.

Demand has continued to build. Fleming’s steakhouses now glaze their lobster en fuego entrees with a mix of sriracha and soy sauce. Roly Poly, another national chain, has begun spiking its cashew chicken wraps with squirts of Huy Fong sriracha.

At Good Stuff Eatery, a burger restaurant in Washington, the owner, Evangelos Mendelsohn, uses a condiment blend of mayonnaise, Huy Fong sriracha and condensed milk.

The Tran family has taken it all in stride. “We’re happy to see these chefs use our sriracha,” said Huy Fong’s president, William Tran, the 33-year-old son of its founder. “But we still sell 80 percent of our product to Asian companies, for distribution through Asian channels. That’s the market we know. That’s the market we want to serve.”

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/MJ

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