Growing up in an Asian household, sriracha was a given—we sometimes bought sriracha for home, but generally deemed it as “not spicy enough” for our tastes. But at Vietnamese restaurants, sometimes my brother and I would drench our pho in sriracha. Sriracha, in my mind, was not something that would become wildly popular in the United States—it was probably overly spicy and thick for most people’s tastes. Even within the Asian community, it was regarded as merely a part of the landscape, rather than a food to be obsessed over.
Then again, as a young child, I had no way to anticipate the coming of the hipster or the foodie. Suddenly, sriracha was everywhere—it was in non-Asian restaurants, it was in chips. Subway even currently stocks sriracha as a resident hot sauce (thinned with some mayo, of course). A sauce has reached market saturation when I can buy its equivalent in lip balm.
Sriracha has been mentioned by cooks and food magazines for years; the New York Times featured an article about sriracha in 2009 about Huy Fong (the most popular brand of sriracha in the United States, although not the only one), which already mentioned its underground, rabid fanbase.
Huy Fong is notable for not having any marketing department. Its publicity has come largely from external sources. In 2010, Bon Appetit named sriracha its ingredient of the year. In March of 2011, a webcomic known as the Oatmeal published a loving tribute to sriracha, otherwise known as “rooster sauce”. The founder of the Oatmeal proceeded to establish a fanpage for Huy Fong’s sriracha and sold merchandise from its store.
In November of 2013, Google Trends shows sriracha reaching its highest point because of the city of Irwindale, where Huy Fong is headquartered, suing the company over its pungent odor. The potential threat of the factory’s closure threw the media and populace into a frenzy over the impending shortage of sriracha.
Sriracha, precisely because of its lack of marketing, spread through word-of-mouth and became beloved not only for its taste, but for its cultish following—the few who knew took a special pride in their knowledge of sriracha. Even as sriracha has joined the “mainstream”, it retains an exotic air—not everyone can handle its spiciness. Plenty of people still have not heard of it, and perhaps cannot easily access it through a restaurant or a local grocery store. Sriracha is still associated with food trucks, fusian Asian foods, and that tone of voice that comes with telling your friends about “this awesome food”.
On every Huy Fong sriracha bottle, the English caption states that sriracha can be put on pizza and hot dogs, among other foods. As a child, putting sriracha on pizza was inconceivable. In 2014, it is not only reality, but perhaps a permanently accepted option in American cuisine.