11 Feb 2018 18:59 IST

Chilli pepper sauces are having a comeback

If Tabasco has a rival for world domination, it’s sriracha

Tabasco, that little green-collared red sauce, is turning 150 this year, and New Orleans will mark the occasion with a revival of George Whitefield Chadwick’s 1894 The Burlesque Opera of Tabasco. Set in Tangier, the operetta centres on the Hot-Heddam Pasha who craves spicy food. A shipwrecked Irish sailor masquerading as a French chef must find a suitably tongue-searing ingredient to impress the combustible Pasha. Tabasco to the rescue, bringing the Irish-French cook rich recompense (“Hail to his Highness the Peer of Tabasco/ Never again will he know a fiasco”).

Were I the hot-blooded Pasha, the cook would have met a rather different end. Tabasco will never make it onto my top 10 list (or into my magnum opus). I can’t fathom how that one-note, vinegary water with its unpleasant, burnt aftertaste can be so popular.

Not that I don’t like hot sauce. Chilli and I have an enthusiastic, if tense relationship, since I never know what my tolerance to heat really is, and always pour too much or too little of it onto my meal. In contrast to Parent #1, who eats green chillies as a sort of salad (and could have given the Pasha a run for his money), and Parent #2, who suffers the dreaded chilli hiccup when confronted with them, I am somewhere in the middle. In India I am commonly considered an amateur in the spice department. The chilli cheese toast at one friend’s house is so red-hot that I am regularly found panting with my tongue hanging out and lapping up water, a circumstance that led to my being mistaken for the family Labrador.

In France, though, I found myself at the top of the spice-eater’s food chain, from which lofty height I contemptuously surveyed people saying “Not too spicy, please” in Vietnamese restaurants and ordering korma (the nutty, creamy curry of the lily-livered) in Indian restaurants. “La sauce piquante?” I say hopefully to every waiter and chef, Labrador face on.

People have been cultivating chilli peppers in Central and South America, parts of North America, and the Caribbean for over 6,000 years, but following Columbus’s blundering arrival in the Americas, and the cultivation of the plant on the Iberian peninsula, the worldwide rise of the plant was nothing short of stupendous. Chilli peppers (there are over 200 varieties) are now embedded in several food traditions — Sicilian, Provençal, Italian, Middle Eastern, Indian, Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Malay, and most other Asian cuisines — adding flavour to even the most meagre meal.

And it’s having a second coming these days, in the form of hot sauces from various cultures — Korean, Mexican, West Indian, Chinese — which appear in everything from eggs to pasta to milkshakes and music videos. (Where Beyonce’s I’ve Got Hot Sauce In My Bag leads, we must all follow.) In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a “hot sauce sommelier” at the speciality spicy condiment store Heatonist helps customers navigate over a 100 varieties.

Among these, sriracha’s rise to stardom is iconic. If Tabasco has a rival for world domination, it’s the spicy vinegar-garlic-sweet-and-salt red sauce commonly called ‘rooster sauce’, seen on menus everywhere, as well as lip balm, socks and undies. Its story is murky: we may have Burmese immigrants to Thailand, or a local Thai woman, Thanom Chakkapak, to thank. Either way, it appears to be named after the coastal Thai town of Si (or Sri) Racha. The home-grown version, called Sriraja Panich, is hard to come by outside Thailand; the most familiar one is the version made by California-based Huy Fong foods, from jalapeno peppers, vinegar, garlic powder, salt and sugar. Artisanal brands like Jojo’s Sriracha, or GMO-free Ninja Squirrel Sriracha Hot Sauce, and, conversely, McDonald’s, have their own versions. Even vinegar merchants Tabasco have jumped onto the rooster sauce bandwagon recently.

There’s another side to this heart-warming — or heartburning — trend. Scientists say that the sensation of spiciness is the result of the activation of pain receptors in the tongue. The capsaicin compounds in chilli peppers trick the nervous system into thinking the tongue has encountered something burning hot. It triggers first a pain response to make you stop eating it, and then pain-relieving endorphins and dopamine, causing a literal chilli kick.

But too much chilli can batter all the other flavours into submission. There’s also a kind of braggadocio competition among hot sauce aficionados, who try to outdo each other on the Scoville scale with every meal. Brands such as Pain is Good, 100% Pain, Demon Ichor, and Hell’s Inferno know this and actively market to it.

Since anything incendiary like a bhut jolokia makes me choke, my own upcoming opera will star an ensemble cast of sauces decidedly lower down on the scale. Lao Gan Ma Chili Crisp, that unidentifiable bottle at Chinatown dim sum restaurants which involves thick flakes of dried-and-fried chillies, fermented soybean funk, shallots, and probably MSG. Dark, fermented, sweet Korean gochujang, a paste of dried red chillies, glutinous rice, soybean, salt and sugar. The gentle, earthy blend of garlic, peppers, olive oil, cumin and coriander that is Moroccan harissa. Kolhapuri thecha, for pure heat in a peanutty, oily base. Maggi Hot And Spicy, for ’90s nostalgia. I’m too far down the Scoville for Assam’s jolokia pickle or all the new varieties of eye-watering bhut jolokia sauce, but I’m told East by North East and Naga chef Joel Basumatari’s Saucy Joe’s brand both make variants for chilli pushovers that could find a spot in my operetta. As will my old friend sriracha.

(Naintara Maya Oberoi is a food writer based in Delhi. The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine.)