diaCRITICS France coorespondant Ly Lan Dill starts thinking about the red sauce and about her identity as Vietnamese. A lovely piece on a super popular condiment known to all Asians and followed by a profile of David Tran, founder of the Rooster Brand, from CHOW.com.
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Tucked away in the 7th arrondissement, sharing property with neighbours as the Conran shop or the Bon Marché department store is the Missions Etrangères de Paris. This religious community has sent and welcomed missionaries to and from Asia and the Indian Ocean for the past 350 years.
Looking at only the stately façades of classical Parisian architecture, there is little hint of the MEP’s ties with Asia unless you go into their gardens and peek into the windows of their refectory. There you notice bottles of Sriracha sauce on every table. The ubiquitous red bottles, with their green tips and rooster branding stand out as a signifier of Asia.
Down in the 13th, the largest “Chinatown” in Europe, Rooster Brand Sriracha bottles distinguish the trendy, upscale restaurants from the hole in the wall joints with murky oxblood red pepper sauce congealing in little glass containers.
French friends pull out the bottles to qualify their Asian dinners as authentic.
My children call it Vietnamese ketchup.
I know Sriracha sauce originated in Thailand. To me however, the Rooster is the promise of a taste of home in whatever kitchen I happen to be. Just as Maggi originated in Switzerland and has become an essential component of a real-deal Banh mi; Rooster brand Sriracha is the taste of Vietnam.
That is until I came across the 2011 CHOW 13, everything food site Chow.com’s annual awards that honors those who are “pushing the food world in new and adventurous directions,” with number 8 spot going to David Tran and his Huy Fong Food’s Rooster Brand Sriracha. His is the immigrant success story in all its proverbial details. Lowly beginnings working in Saigon, crushing peppers while his brother filled recycled baby jar bottles obtained from US PX and army camps. Fleeing the war. Immigrating to foreign shores with nothing more than a secret recipe. Years of struggling in an ethnic ghetto. And finally consecration when the Rooster appears on tables from lowly dives to the shelves of top-notch kitchens in restaurants everywhere.
The Rooster is as Vietnamese as I am; which for most of my life meant “good try but not the real deal.” It’s Vietnamese because it wants to be. It’s a riff on a traditional Thai pepper sauce, marketed to phở houses all over the US, and is slowly taking on the world. And so even if it is not as quê hương as I thought, I can get behind making do with what you have and creating roots where you are. So grab a bottle, squirt a smiley face on a bánh bao or your next burger and raise a toast to the Vietnamese Rooster looking to conquer the world.
David Tran: Sriracha
America loves its immigrant success stories, and few are as good as David Tran’s. Tran founded Huy Fong Foods, the Southern California company that started making “rooster” brand Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce in the early 1980s. Born into a Chinese family in Vietnam, Tran has seen his creation hit like the Macintosh computer: a brand that transcends simple marketing to define an identity.
In less than five years, Sriracha has gone from being the greasy-bottled table condiment at pho joints in the San Gabriel Valley to the hot sauce of hipsters, the star of a cookbook hocked at Urban Outfitters, and now, a design element at Chipotle. That is, at Chipotle’s new noodle and rice-bowl spin-off, ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen (the first branch opened for beta testing in Washington DC in September). There, a single row of unopened, green-topped Sriracha bottles lines one wall.
In LA, Kogi pastry chef Beth Kellerhals recently created perhaps the ultimate expression of Sriracha’s ascendance to cultural icon: a candy bar with a layer of rooster sauce ganache at its heart. “There’s definitely a Rocky Horror Picture Show following to Sriracha,” says Kogi’s Roy Choi.
Now in his 60s, Tran (who did not respond to interview requests) seems as surprised as anyone by Sriracha’s new status. In Vietnam in the 1970s, he made a range of spicy sauces using chiles his brother grew near Saigon. Tran arrived in the United States in January 1980, and by February he was busy grinding chile sauces, according to a 2009 New York Times profile. The rooster? Tran’s astrological sign. The name Sriracha? A town in central Thailand known for its chile pastes. And the polyglot of languages on the bottle? Tran’s genius may be the very ambiguity of Sriracha’s provenance.
“He had a so-so level of success, living in Chinatown in LA,” says Andrea Nguyen, author of Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, “mixing up sauces for the top Southeast Asian cuisines—he even made sambal oelek for the Indonesian community—but the thing that hits is rooster sauce. Is it Thai? Is it Vietnamese? It’s completely messed up as to which cuisine owns it.” Momofuku chef David Chang told a reporter in 2008 that Sriracha is one of five ingredients that must always be on his kitchen shelves.
Choi—whose first Kogi truck parked in Rosemead, California, site of Tran’s Huy Fong factory—thinks Sriracha will always belong to the Asian home cooks who used it long before Tran’s rooster sauce had a Facebook page. “A lot of stuff that’s hipster cool is just normal everyday shit for us,” Choi says, “like ketchup on the table.” As for the Sriracha-bottle décor at ShopHouse, Choi calls it “fucking cheesy.”
Still, Choi says, the sauce that started out in Vietnam, with David Tran’s brother-in-law filling Gerber baby food jars sourced from American GIs, will always keep something of its raw edge. “That’s the amazing thing about the rooster,” Choi says. “There’s this crazy little outfit in Rosemead, California. One dude started it, and nobody else can replicate the flavor. There’s something spiritual and magic about it.” —J.B.
Ly Lan Dill was born in Viet Nam, grew up in the US, and is now a Paris-based translator.
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