The Top 3 Hot Sauces You've Never Heard Of
But First, the Hot Sauce You HAVE Heard Of
The American culinary history of hot sauce goes back to at least the early 1800s, but it didn’t take off in a major way until Edmund McIlhenny started commercial production of Tabasco sauce in 1868. The now-ubiquitous Tabasco essentially defines Louisiana-style hot sauces, and the vinegar-and-pepper hot sauce recipe template -- in many different variations and permutations, of course -- is familiar to almost all Americans, and loved by almost as many.
Indeed, the American love of hot sauce has spawned an entire industry centered around a wide variety of hot sauces, including a growing number of gourmet, small-batch hot sauce producers that are constantly taking the industry in new directions. (And to be clear, producers need retailers, like your favorite purveyor of gourmet, artisan hot sauces, ChiliZilla. So help your friendly gourmet hot sauce producers out and do a little shopping on ChiliZilla while you’re here, huh?)
But as exciting as all of these gourmet hot sauces are, we tend to look at them through an American-centric lens that -- just possibly -- might cause us to overlook other hot sauces from around the world. But those sauces from another mother (all chiles originated in the Americas, however and wherever they’ve been cultivated since) are deserving of attention, too, and no small amount of love. With that in mind, here are three hot sauces from around the world that any serious hot sauce aficionado ought to know.
Harissa: Tunisian Hot SauceI remember the moment when I first looked at the ingredients on a jar of harissa and realized that it was actually hot sauce: “It’s hot sauce… HARISSA IS HOT SAUCE!!!” (Read that in your Charlton Heston, Soylent Green voice, please.)
ANYWAY. Harissa is a Tunisian hot sauce that usually comes with a paste-like consistency. It’s great as a condiment, but also serves well as a base for sauces to go over (or to simmer with) vegetables and rice. It has a slightly smoky flavor, which is no surprise, since most recipes for this hot sauce begin with dried chiles -- guajillo, ancho, and a fistful of arboles to up the heat are good choices, if you’re working out your own recipe (and doesn’t “Fistful of Arboles” sound like a cool movie title?). Spice-wise, harissa’s distinct flavor is derived from its blend of coriander, cumin, and caraway seeds, garlic, smoked paprika, and whatever other house ingredients the producer wants to throw in. Finish it off with a little lemony or vinegary acid, and you can see why harissa continues to grow in international popularity.
Fermented Korean Hot Sauce GochujangLike harissa, gochujang is widely available in the ethnic or Asian section of many mainstream American groceries, but has yet to penetrate the American palate in the same way that sriracha has. Which is a shame, really, because coming to us courtesy of the strong Korean culinary tradition, gochujang is a fermented hot sauce that delivers a delicious mix of heat, earthiness, and umami-savoriness.
The list of ingredients is long, and the process a wee bit complicated, so we won’t really go into it too much here. Suffice it to say that when red chili powder, fermented soybean powder, sweet rice powder, malt barley, sea salt, and other ingredients are left to ferment in the sun for several months, the result can be -- and in gochujang’s case, are -- an amazing hot sauce that can be used anywhere you might want to add both heat and umami. Enjoy.
Zhug: Going Green with this Yemeni Hot SauceZhug is possibly the least well-known sauce on this list. Of course, that statement is true in America, but decidedly not in the Middle East and definitely not in Yemen, where Zhug is a solid part of Yemeni cooking.
In terms of taste and heat, zhug is somewhat similar to many American green hot sauces that are on the market today. That’s because zhug is powered by serrano peppers, which gives it a nice vegetable-based flavor with a heat that’s somewhat hotter than a jalapeno but nowhere near the heat of things like ghost peppers, for example. Behind that comes even more green-y freshness supplied by parsley and cilantro -- but lest you get bored, zhug is also packed with a mix of cardamom, black peppercorns, coriander, and cumin that’s sure to delight. It’s a delicious hot sauce that deserves to be more well-known in America, so the next time you see it on a menu or in a store, consider giving it a go!
And in fact, that sentiment -- why not give it a go? -- is one that can be applied to not only zhug, but harissa and gochujang, as well. They’re all delicious, and all worthy of your attention and your taste buds -- and now, armed with your new culinary knowledge as to what these hot sauces are all about, you’ll be ready when you meet one of them in the wild.
And remember: There are no strange hot sauces; there are just hot sauces you haven’t met yet. Buen provecho and bon appetit!
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