Unless you’ve ben dwelling in an alternative solar system for the past year, you’re aware that sriracha is one of the most popular culinary trends on the planet. Simply put, sriracha is a hot sauce made from chili peppers, distilled vinegar, garlic, sugar and salt. It was named for a coastal city in eastern Thailand, where it was invented for use with seafood. The American version contains about half the heat of jalapeno peppers.
The main U.S. manufacturer of sriracha is Huy Fong Foods of Rosemead, CA. In order to ensure freshness, Huy Fong produces a quota of the sauce each month. Among foodies, sriracha has come to be regarded as indispensable with sushi and certain Thai dishes.
However, there’s trouble looming on the sriracha horizon. In October, residents of the California city of Irwindale filed a lawsuit against Huy Fong, claiming that the nearby sriracha factory produced unpleasant odors and burning eyes; last month, a judge ruled on behalf of the citizens and called the factory a public nuisance. To make matters worse, the California Department of Public Health has announced a 30-day embargo against Huy Fong sriracha. Since none of the ingredients in the sauce are cooked, the waiting period would insure that all contaminants had been destroyed.
Critics of sriracha contend that hot sauce is a culinary crutch—something that masks the flavors of other components in a dish, thus making qualitative judgments difficult or impossible. Many casual observers also note that it tends to be habit-forming. While certainly not as addictive as nicotine or heroin, the heat from peppers creates a sensation similar to a drug-induced high, leaving the user craving for more.
Perhaps this last phenomenon has something to do with the panic that seems to be sweeping through the culinary universe, as sriracha users contemplate life without their favorite sauce. “If we did lose sriracha,” said Chef Edward Lee of Kentucky’s 610 Magnolia, “it would be a bigger crisis than ana hot sauce, oil shortage. People would riot in the streets.”
The prospect of a shortage of hot sauce leading to the complete breakdown of civilization is frightening to contemplate. Perhaps the only solution would be rationing—a system similar to the one imposed on citizens by the government during World War II. Of course, that would lead to the creation of a black market, which would then encourage the participation of organized crime. Any way you look at it, the end of the world is at hand.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, published by Lyons Press; his second book, Moonshine Nation, is forthcoming from Lyons Press in June 2014. For more information, go to amazon.com