Cult condiment that has made its way from south-east Asian restaurants to UK supermarkets described as ketchup with a kick
Move over Worcestershire, look out Tabasco - a new sauce is vying for Britain's palates, after emerging in Thailand and finding fans in the UK through street food stalls and music festivals.
Sriracha - made from garlic, chillies and vinegar - has gone mainstream thanks to its versatility, according to Yotam Ottolenghi, a chef known for his use of obscure ingredients.
"I think it's absolutely delicious, because it is sharp and hot, but has body and balance," said Ottolenghi. "It's not just found in south-east Asian restaurants, but is very popular with American southern food: it works well with the pulled pork and dirty burgers."
Ottolenghi sells sriracha through his online deli, but the sauce has broken out into the high street - Tesco now sells the sauce under its own brand.
Sarah Edwards, of the food trend agency The Food People, says the sauce became fashionable two years ago, and is now used everywhere from local Vietnamese canteens to restaurants run by well-known chefs, such as Peter Gordon's Kopapa in Covent Garden, which offers a chorizo hash with sriracha sauce.
According to a recent documentary, the sauce was created in the Thai seaside town of Si (or Sri) Racha by a local woman, Thanom Chakkapak. The most popular brand in the US, however, is made by Huy Fong foods, whose owner, David Tran, emigrated to the US from Vietnam.
Juliette Wall, of Pho, a Vietnamese street-food chain with 12 UK restaurants, says diners have been seen to eat it by the spoonful. The chain even uses it in cocktails, with a sriracha bloody mary on sale.
Specialist retailers say so many outlets are selling the chilli sauce that sales have fallen for them. "Until about a year ago we used to sell lots of it," says Rachel Wirrmann of chilli specialist store Scorchio. "But now we don't sell the same volumes because it is so widely available. People would try it on holiday and then buy it online when they were back. But now you can pick it up on the high street."
The mania for sriracha started in the US - where there are three festivals, a cookbook and a merchandise range dedicated to the condiment. And when a judge temporarily halted production of the best-known brand, made by the Los Angeles-based Huy Fong Food, after complaints about its factory fumes from people living nearby, there were reports of panic and stockpiling among fans, along with the inevitable Twitter hashtag of #srirachapocalypse.
Food and travel expert Kevin Gould says: "Its increasing popularity was driven by west coast America, because their palate is sweet - it's like ketchup with a kick. You can put a lot on food without it being wildly hot, whereas with Tabasco even five or six drops is too much. And it's not expensive."
The sriracha sensation is part of a wider appreciation of chilli sauces, which is overtaking milder condiments, such as Worcestershire sauce. In its latest report on sauces and condiments The Grocer magazine said volume sales of all sauces were up by 3.4% this year, but those of hot chilli and pepper sauces had increased by 14.2%.
Over the same period, sales of Worcestershire sauce fell by 3.3% to £17.6m.Taste panel: 'It leaves your mouth buzzing like a fire alarm'
I admit I approached the pungent bright red pastes with caution - wary of the jalapeno chillies. But the first taste of Sriracha is gentle and surprisingly sweet. There is a tangy tomato flavour with only the distinct garlicky edge to distinguish it from ketchup. Then, half a second later, the heat from the chillies blossoms across your tongue to the back of your throat and leaves your mouth and lips buzzing like a fire alarm. It's too hot for me, but somehow I can't help trying more.
According to one taster, sriracha sauce 'leaves your tongue buzzing like a fire alarm. Photograph: Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images