The History Of Sriracha: How The Famous Vietnamese Condiment Made It To The U.S.

By Karen Harris

A man dresses up with his hot dog with Huy Fong Sriracha Hot Sauce. (Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images)

As the hottest (literally) hipster condiment in America, sriracha has enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity in the last decade, but fans of the zingy sauce may not know how sriracha moved from rural Thailand to Vietnam and then the United States, where an enterprising Vietnamese immigrant introduced the country to the hot sauce that transforms ordinary dishes into spicy masterpieces.

Sriracha In Thailand

Sriracha may be known as a Vietnamese condiment, but it's believed to have originated in Thailand in the town of Sri Racha, where a local woman named Thanom Chakkapak whipped up a sauce using chilies and garlic in her home kitchen in 1949. Thinner and sweeter than the sriracha sauce we use today, Chakkapak's creation was the toast of the town, and at the suggestion of her friends and family members, she began to bottle and sell it under the name Sriraja Panich. It became an immediate staple in the area and slowly spread to neighboring regions.

Beginning in 1975, David Tran, a Vietnam native, started making and selling his own version of the popular hot sauce using the chili peppers that his brother grew on his own farm outside Saigon. For a while, Tran enjoyed success, but in 1978, the government of Vietnam started pressuring the country's ethnic Chinese residents to leave the country, so Tran and his family boarded the Taiwanese freighter Huy Fong, which means "gathering prosperity," bound for Hong Kong.

Chinatown in the '80s. (Ucla90024/Wikimedia Commons)

Success In The U.S.

Tran didn't stay in Hong Kong for long, settling in California in 1979. Hoping to replicate his success in Vietnam and give the other Southeast Asian immigrants who flocked to the area a taste of home, Tran started making his sriracha sauce in his factory in Chinatown, Los Angeles, which he named after the freighter that carried him out of Vietnam. Since he was born in the year of the rooster, he included a rooster on the label.

As a one-man operation, Tran did everything from mixing up batches of sriracha to filling each bottle by hand to delivering them to customers all across Chinatown in his Chevy van, but as his client base grew, so did his operations. Word of mouth soon spread about the sauce, and Tran's company enjoyed an annual growth rate of 20% without any form of advertising. In fact, he still doesn't advertise his sriracha. Starting in the early '80s, the hot sauce started popping up in restaurants and supermarkets around California and soon spread to other states.

Huy Fong Foods Headquarters, Irwindale, California. (AliveFreeHappy/Wikimedia Commons)

Growing Pains

In its December 2009 issue, Bon Appetit named Tran's Huy Fong sriracha sauce its 2010 Ingredient of the Year, introducing a whole new population to the cult favorite hot sauce. The next year, Tran sold more than 20 million bottles. In fact, Tran's factory, which had moved to Irwindale, California, was so busy that residents of the town sued to stop production at Huy Fong Foods because the spicy smell had permeated the whole town.

The judge ruled to slow production at Huy Fong to pre-2010 levels until the company implemented safeguards against unchecked nose pollution, but the residents of Irwindale weren't satisfied and expanded their lawsuit to declare the factory a public nuisance. Before the lawsuit could be settled out of court, several other states offered to welcome the factory, but Tran chose to remain in California. Incidentally, the building that currently houses Huy Fong Foods was once home to another faddish company: Wham-O, which made toys like the hula hoop, Silly String, Frisbees, Magic Sand, and Slip 'N Slides.

Movie poster, Sriracha (2013). (Griffin Hammond/Wikimedia Commons)

Sriracha Mania

Today, sriracha is almost synonymous with hot sauce. The famous rooster bottle, which Huy Fong produces at a rate of 18,000 per hour, sits alongside ketchup and mustard bottles at restaurants, and countless prepackaged snacks, from potato chips to beverages to chewing gum, are available in sriracha flavors. In 2013, the sauce was the subject of a 33-minute documentary film by Griffin Hammond simply titled Sriracha, featuring expeditions to Sri Racha, Thailand and tours of the Huy Fong factory.

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.