I am slowly rationing sriracha. Once in a long while, I’ll find a foodstuff worthy of anointment, and, like a laboratory chemist, I will slowly mete out a few drops from my one and only bottle onto the lucky recipient.
David Thompson, Thai-food scholar and chef of Nahm in Bangkok, gifted me this particular bottle. The sauce is sweet and only mildly spicy, with a consistency closer to vinaigrette than purée. In Thompson’s words, “In short, it’s truly delicious. The most rounded version I have ever tasted. It has provenance, too.”
My prized sriracha comes from a town on the eastern coast of Thailand called Si Racha, the sauce’s namesake and reputed birthplace. The brand is Koh Loy, named after a teensy-weensy island connected to the mainland by bridge. “It is the first established factory making the sauce,” says Thompson. “In this instance, I use the word factory loosely. They make the sauce only at certain times of the year, but not for romantic reasons. They make it when chilies are plentiful and cheap.”
“Thais love chilies and have many ways to feed that craving,” Thompson explains. “Fresh chilies and scuds [bird’s-eye chilies; great word] are the most immediate way to gratify. Sriracha sauce is another, milder way to satisfy. They use it mainly with omelets and to accompany deep-fried dishes.”
My friend Joe Cummings, a food and travel writer with a couple decades in Southeast Asia under his belt, adds: “Some Thais will eat it with other fried dishes, especially if there’s breading involved, but they’d be considered boorish for doing so. Thais are very finicky about which sauces go with which dishes. The idea that one sauce could be used for everything is foreign to them.”
One sauce for everything. Joe is alluding, of course, to our American fetish for the red stuff in the bottle with the rooster drawing and the green nipple. That version of sriracha, the one you know from virtually every pho restaurant (and civilized refrigerator) in America, is produced by Huy Fong Foods in Southern California, the creation of an ethnically Chinese, Vietnamese-American man named David Tran. Huy Fong is the name of the vessel on which Tran left Vietnam in 1979.
They don’t eat our sriracha in Vietnam. They have a similar condiment called tuong ot—a name you might recognize from the Huy Fong bottle— that’s often found on pho tables. In the South, pho comes with a thicker pho/sate sauce. (Cummings describes it as “a velvety concoction that resembles an orangish/reddish tahini. Very savory in flavor, with a slow, intense afterburn from the chilies.”) On Northern tables, you’ll find a thinner chili-vinegar sauce, along with fresh chilies, limes, and garlic-infused vinegar.
I’m not a hard-liner about sriracha. I dig the rooster. There’s also Phanich, another brand from Si Racha claiming to be the original. You’ll see it around. Those are my everyday srirachas for fixing bad pizza or dipping pho beef. But my bottle of Koh Loy is the fine china of condiments—it’s only for special occasions. I’m so stingy with it, it’ll probably go bad before I use it up. One more reason to return to Thailand, I guess.