The possibility of a global shortage of sriracha sauce horrified chilli lovers everywhere. The UK market for all kinds of hot sauce is booming - do you spice up your savoury dishes?
It came as no surprise to me that sriracha junkies in the US were preparing to hoard the spicy sauce as raw-eyed Californian residents tried to shut down the producer for fouling the air with chilli smog. I'm a huge fan of the pungent, flavourful, fire-engine red sauce that has become a cult condiment. Documentary film in the pipeline? Tick. Festival dedicated to the catnip sauce? You bet. Tatty merchandise available online? Absolutely.
Sriracha lovers in the UK, myself included, are watching the unfolding "culinary crisis" in the US with a little unease. Huy Fong Foods' version, known as "rooster sauce", isn't the only brand of the unpronounceable (SIR-rotch-ah) relish available in the UK, but it is one of the world's most popular. With 20m bottles a year now rolling off its production line, the threatened factory closure (averted - but only for the time being) raises the spectre of a gobal shortage.
The British have long had the hots for hot food. Hannah Glasse published the first curry recipe in English in 1747, signalling the start of our obsession with spiced - or devilled - dishes. But in recent years our hankering for fiery flavourings has intensified, and chilli sauce is now the fastest-growing category of table sauce on the market.
According to the consumer research group IRI, overall sales of table sauce fell by 0.3% in the 12 months to October, but sales of chilli sauce grew by 1.7% (with sweet chilli sauce recording 6.6% growth). We might be turning our backs on the likes of bog-standard ketchup, but we're happy to shell out over £21m a year for the punchier stuff.
Not so long ago, a few dainty drops of Tabasco were pretty much all that was available to spice up a bloody mary or a plate of eggs (and didn't that dolly-sized bottle seem to last forever?). Now, if the top shelf of your fridge is anything like mine, there is a chaotic selection of sriracha, chipotle (both sauce and paste), harissa, sweet chilli, wasabi, horseradish ... I dollop chilli sauce in/on pretty much everything: eggs, broth, potatoes, noodles, bolognese sauce - you name it, I think it tastes better with a dab of spicy heat.
"The growth in sales of hot sauce in recent years has been staggering," says Karl Wirrmann, the founder of online chilli sauce company Scorchio.co.uk. "I started the business as a hobby in 2006 because I was a fan of hot sauce and I couldn't find it easily in the UK. That's all completely changed now."
Heinz recently added a fiery chilli tomato ketchup to its range in an effort to woo back British palates. Even takeaway sandwich giant Subway is riding the wave of the sriracha craze.
Wirrmann's company now specialises in "insanely hot" chilli sauce, as consumer tolerance to "mouth fire" heightens. "People can't get enough of the heat and the strength, and some just want their sauces hotter and hotter," he says. "It seems to have an addictive quality."
Wirrmann believes the increase in restaurants in which chilli is a key ingredient - Mexican, Vietnamese, Caribbean, southern US "soul food" - has awoken British taste buds to the joy of food that twins flavour with fire. There are also other benefits. A dash of sriracha, with its rich combination of chilli, vinegar, garlic, sugar and salt, can hide a multitude of culinary sins - Wirrmann carries a bottle with him when he's travelling to perk up plates of indifferent food. Nigella Lawson is also known to carry a bottle of Tabasco in her handbag for peppery punch when she's on the hoof, and also - weirdly - keeps a bottle by the bed.
Juliette Wall, the co-founder of the Vietnamese restaurant chain Pho, attests to our ever-growing appetite for the hot stuff. In the past year, customers sweated through a quarter of a million teaspoons of sriracha. "Many customers eat whole spoonfuls with every bite of pho," Wall says. "They eat it like ketchup. Our spicy pho is now our biggest seller and we have extra chillies next to the till. We've also had to add chillies to our noac cham sauce - which never had chillies in it before - to cater to the demand for heat."
Sriracha devotees can take some comfort from the fact that, whatever the fate of the Huy Fong factory, they will never be short of tongue-igniting alternatives. Korean gochujang has been mooted as the new coolest chilli sauce in town, with wasabi hot on its tail. A friend swears by Malaysian crispy prawn chilli - it is wonderful with crispy cubes of Spam, apparently.
Do you douse everything you eat with chilli sauce, or is it a sure-fire way to obliterate the taste of good food?Photo: Cult condiment sriracha sauce. Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images