The Surprising Origins of Your Favorite Hot Sauces
Read on to find out where in the world these spicy little numbers first caught fire.
Photo By: McIlhenny Company
Photo By: Steven Depolo via Flickr
Photo By: GeoTrinity via Wikimedia Commons
Photo By: : Chinense via Wikimedia Commons
Photo By: Frank’s RedHot via Instagram
Photo By: Nando’s
Tabasco Original Red Pepper Sauce
Edmund McIlhenny — a banker whose livelihood went belly-up during the Civil War — returned to his wife’s family’s homestead on Avery Island, Louisiana and planned to start a new business in New Orleans. He was given a handful of peppers that would eventually be called Capsicum frutescens v. tabasco, and he planted their seeds in the family garden. The hot sauce he created with those peppers, vinegar and salt was a rousing success at his table, so he decided to market the mixture commercially — and in 1868, "that famous sauce that Mr. McIlhenny makes" was born. 150 years later, Tabasco peppers are still grown on Avery Island, McIlhenny’s great-great-grandson is the McIlhenny Company’s president and CEO, and the three-ingredient hot sauce his family ages and bottles much as he did in the 19th century is sold in more than 185 countries and territories and labeled in 22 different languages and dialects.
Huy Fong Sriracha
The story of Sriracha begins in the 1930s on the Gulf of Thailand, where a woman named Thankom Chakkapak invented Sriraja Panich, a cask-fermented cocktail sauce made with long, slender prik chi faa peppers, garlic vinegar, sugar and salt. Popular on seafood and omelettes, Thai Sriracha is quite unlike its thicker, fiery American counterpart. David Tran, an immigrant from Vietnam living in Los Angeles, created the version U.S. consumers know and love in the 1980s: He named his company Huy Fong Foods after the Taiwanese freighter that had carried him to the states and chose a rooster for his logo as a nod to his Vietnamese zodiac sign. Tran’s first sauce was Thai-style, but by 1984 he had resolved to create a sauce that would be as popular as ketchup, and he combined fresh red jalapenos, vinegar, garlic, sugar and salt to create what we now know as Sriracha. He did not trademark the name, which is why "sriracha" can refer to any number of hot sauces — nor did he invest in marketing, instead relying on word of mouth to popularize his product. The strategy was successful, to put it mildly: in 2017, a bottle of Huy Fong Sriracha was spotted on the International Space Station.
Like sriracha, sambal oelek refers to a number of products: sambal is an Indonesian (by way of Java) word which means “condiment,” while an Indonesian ulek is a stone tool used to make pastes. Unlike, say, Huy Fong’s Sriracha, it has yet to form a strong association with a single brand — in fact, Huy Fong produces a Sambal Oelek Paste of its own. Popular in Malaysia, Thailand and Sri Lanka as well as Indonesia, it’s a chunky, salted crushed-pepper paste that was developed after Portuguese sailors brought peppers from the New World to Asia in the 16th century. While all sambal oelek is a thick, peppery mix with visible seeds, there are countless variations on that simple base: some versions have citrus juices and sugar, while others are blended with fish or shrimp paste. Jars of sambal oelek aren’t yet as recognizable as bottles of “rooster sauce” on American restaurant tables, but that could change over the next few years: chefs and hot-sauce aficionados call it the condiment that can do anything, worthy of a cult following of its own.
Marie Sharp's Habanero Pepper Sauce
Marie Sharp was a full-time executive secretary at the Citrus Company of Belize when, in 1980, her husband inherited a 400-acre farm. Both she and her husband were avid gardeners, and they leapt at the opportunity to grow habanero peppers for a local doctor who needed ingredients for his hot sauce. Her crop was far more than the doctor could use, so she began developing recipes for sauces, jams and jellies based on the excess. Like Edmund McIlhenny, she found that her concoctions were a hit with neighbors and friends, and she set her sights on establishing a business. Though she started small — in a diminutive kitchen, with help from relatives and a single employee — her enterprise blossomed into a family-owned factory in Stann Creek, Belize that now has more than 20 employees, produces her recipes for local and international markets, and commands 86% of her country’s hot sauce market. Not bad for an enterprise that began with a garage full of hot-pepper mash (so potent that her husband had to find somewhere else to park his car) — not bad at all.
Tapatío Hot Sauce
Tapatio is a person or thing that originates in Guadalajara, the capital of the state of Jalisco in western Mexico — but Tapatio Hot Sauce was born in the late 60s in southern California. Jose-Luis Saavedra, a Mexican immigrant, made and shared his fiery concoction (a closely-held secret combination of peppers, garlic and spices) with coworkers at his aerospace manufacturing job. When layoffs claimed that job in 1971, Saavedra threw himself into producing his hot sauce full-time (while juggling two additional part-time jobs). His creation originally took his wife’s family name — Cuervo, as in the tequila company operated by her relatives — but after four years of sharing the moniker, he sold his right to its use and used funds from the sale to expand his operation. Saavedra’s sauce became Tapatio in 1975, in honor of his three children, all born in Guadalajara. The mustachioed man on the bottle isn’t Saavedra, but an artist’s rendering of a Tapatio: as he has said, it’s a way to reclaim the image of the noble charro (a Mexican horseman or cowboy) from inaccurate stereotypes. His visage now symbolizes both traditions of the Jalisco highlands and — as Tapatio has spread like wildfire across the country — the realization of an immigrant family’s American dream.
El Yucateco Hot Sauce
The Yucateco Salsa y Condimentos company traces its roots back to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula both literally and figuratively. In 1968, Priamo J. Gamboa began a small family business to produce habanero pepper sauces to be sold at local markets. Gamboa knew that the key to consistency was to shoulder the responsibility for his main ingredients himself, and he did just that: the habaneros and annatto seeds that form the backbone of his recipes have always been grown in his company’s own fields in Yucatan, Campeche, and Quintana Roo. Gamboa’s factory, in turn, is in Kanasin Yucatan, and after sending its products to the United States in the early 70s, it has come to dominate the northern market: El Yucateco is the bestselling habanero sauce in America and beloved around the world. It’s also developed a reputation for packing serious heat: the company’s red and green sauces clock in at 9,000 and 5,790 Heat Units on the Scoville scale.
Crystal Hot Sauce
One might say Crystal Hot Sauce’s story begins with the life-changing magic of tidying up. In 1923, a laid-off hardware-store worker named Alvin Baumer took a loan from his fiancée’s father and purchased Mill’s Fruit Products, a company on New Orleans’s Tchoupitoulas Street that produced syrup for shaved ice. When Baumer combed through the drawers in the company archives, he found a recipe for a vinegar-based concoction made with aged cayenne peppers: "Crystal Pure Louisiana Hot Sauce." The name stuck, Baumer’s products found a following, and his company expanded and relocated to a larger Mid City facility on Tulane Avenue — which would eventually produce preserves and jellies as war rations for U.S. soldiers in World War II. That building, its iconic neon sign and the original copy of the fabled Crystal recipe fell victim to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but the Baumer family successfully rebuilt and relocated their business upriver two years later. Today, Crystal is the best-selling hot sauce in Louisiana, and more than 4.5 million gallons of it are shipped across the country and around the world every year. The Baumers’ success is a testament to their resilience — and a solid argument for going through old drawers very carefully.
"Cholula" is a derivation of the Nahuatl word Chollolan (which means "a place of retreat"), and the world’s leading Mexican-style hot sauce shares its name with a 2,500-year-old city built in eastern-central Mexico to honor the god Quetzalcoatl. Originally produced by the Harrison family of Chapala (in Jalisco), the arbol- and piquin-pepper-based recipe was first popular as a component of sangrita, a spicy chaser for tequila. Like Tapatio, it also shares a connection to the Jose Cuervo family: they licensed the company from the Harrisons and expanded it, introducing Cholula to the United States in 1989. The identity of the woman pictured on each bottle depends on whom you ask: some identify her as Camila Harrison, matriarch of the Harrison family, and others know her as "La Chila," the legendary Cuervo family cook and beloved abuelita figure who hailed from Puebla, near Cholula. Everyone, on the other hand, associates her with el sabor perfecto — that is, the perfect flavor.
Frank's RedHot Sauce
Jacob Frank founded the Frank Tea and Spice Company in Cincinnati in 1896. Just over two decades later, he formed a now-famous partnership with a pepper farmer named Adam Estilette in New Iberia, Louisiana, and Frank’s RedHot Sauce — a condiment that combined and aged spices, vinegar, garlic and cayenne peppers — emerged from Estilette’s pickling plant. Four decades later, Frank’s RedHot was associated with another classic pairing: in 1964, it was used as the secret ingredient in the very first buffalo wing sauce in Buffalo, New York. Frank’s has been synonymous with wings ever since (and the Frank’s team has produced its own RedHot Buffalo Wings Sauce since 2009), but it’s also been the subject of foodie controversy: in March of this year, the company tweeted a photo of wings and — horror of horrors! — ranch dressing. Legions of fans called foul, and Frank’s responded: "Our fans from Buffalo have spoken in response to our #NationalRanchDressingDay tweet and inspired us to create a movement for #NationalBlueCheeseDressingDay, where we can highlight the original perfect pair — Buffalo wings and blue cheese dressing," a representative told The Buffalo News. Phew.
Nando's Peri-Peri Sauce
Peri-peri (Swahili for "pepper-pepper") sauce gains its name from the peri-peri (or African Bird’s Eye) chili, a petite red pepper that packs a punch (around 50,000 to 100,000 on the Scoville scale). Portuguese settlers in Africa discovered the chilis in the 15th century and used them to create a marinade with ingredients like red wine vinegar, paprika, and spices they carried to the continent from Europe. Portuguese-Angolans and Portuguese-Mozambicans maintain that peri-peri sauce was their invention, but there is little disagreement in how it conquered modern appetites: That story begins in 1987 in South Africa, where Fernando Duarte and Robert Brozin met for a meal at a Johannesburg takeaway joint called Chickenland and decided to get into the restaurant business together. They purchased Chickenland and rechristened it Nando’s (named after Fernando’s son). In their first two years, they opened two more South African Nando’s and a third location in Portugal — and today, there are more than a thousand Nando’s in 24 countries. Their bottled peri-peri sauces, in turn, are available from more than 10,000 American retailers.