Sriracha: From Obscurity to Mainstream

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Sriracha: From Obscurity to Mainstream

It’s safe to say that in the food world, Sriracha has definitely hit its stride as a mainstream ingredient. There are Sriracha subs, Sriracha chips, Sriracha mayo, Sriracha ice cream and even Sriracha vodka, but just 10 years ago, this humble paste of fresh chile peppers, garlic and salt was almost unheard of, until some sort of epic shift occurred launching it from relative obscurity to a mega foodie crush. 

For those of us who track flavors, it’s interesting to look back and try to analyze the “why” of a flavor’s journey from emerging to everywhere.

Sriracha is not exactly a new invention. Created in 1980 by David Tran, a Vietnamese immigrant and owner of Huy Fong Foods in California, Sriracha quietly graced the tabletops of Asian restaurants for nearly 30 years before it caught on fire as the darling of everything. For more ways to Turn up the Heat, download the free Flavor Atlas™ white paper.

Tran originally created his Sriracha sauce as something he thought fellow Vietnamese immigrants might like with their pho soup. He didn’t advertise. He didn’t have a complicated business model. He just wanted to make a good sauce that made people happy. Kind of a mind-blowing philosophy in a fierce Shark Tank world, but perhaps one clue to the early Sriracha mystique.

As the culture has backlashed against corporate food megaliths, the unassuming rooster bottle with the green top might have been just the refreshing, anti-big-food story the world needed. Of course, like with anything, there are more threads to the flavor truth than one. And a host of other factors could have led to the out-of-the-blue success.

  1. Americans have a long-running love affair with heat. If watching the hot sauce sadist-enthusiasts around the office challenge each other to the “bell of shame” is any indication, heat seekers are better than bloodhounds at sniffing out the next new way to get their fiery fix. So in the big scheme of things, perhaps finding Sriracha was inevitable?
  2. Chefs used Sriracha as a mainstay in many trendy creations before Sriracha was cool. Early 2000s Spicy Tuna Avocado Roll, anyone? You can thank Sriracha.
  3. Influencers got a hold of a bottle of it. Seriously, if a Kardashian starts dressing up like your product and taking selfies, the popularity train has already left the station. . .
  4. Recipes sprouted up everywhere for sharing. For brownies, for wings, for stir-fry, for you-name-it. Like name-dropping at an A-list event, the addition of Sriracha secured the most ordinary of recipes the status of instant cool.
  5. Super fans. Why do people suddenly come out of the woodwork singing the praises of “their” secret sauce like they’ve been using it since birth? Maybe it’s the need to feel part of a special, in-the-know club. Maybe it’s because they really like it.  Or who knows, maybe it’s because they like feeling swept up in the magic of the hottest new thing. Whatever the reason, I’m pretty sure it’s all good to Mr. Tran.

As for the Turn Up the Heat theme of Flavor Atlas™, the question now becomes, is Sriracha a red flavor giant about to blow up and spectacularly implode? Not likely. As recently as July 2018, consumers rank Sriracha, Ginger and Wasabi as the top-3 “Turn Up the Heat” flavors1—so the beloved rooster sauce is not going anywhere soon.

The real question is which of the emerging flavors like gochujang, yuzo kosho, ndjua and harissa have the special something to become the next hot commodity along the flavor path? It’s a hard thing to prognosticate. But for now, I’m just glad there’s no end to exciting new contenders.

1MNCA Flavor Atlas Online Survey, July 2018

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