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Food by VICE

The Story of Sriracha Is the Story of America

The trajectory of David Tran's success—and the backlash he's gotten for being "inauthentic"—embody the realities of being an immigrant entrepreneur in America.

by Brian Gray and Connie Lo
Sep 9 2019, 11:00am

Illustration by Koji Yamamoto.

Sriracha: You probably know it as that ubiquitous bottle of chile sauce, the one with the rooster on the label, green cap on top, fiery red sauce inside. Its creator, Vietnamese refugee David Tran, has become nearly as legendary as the sauce he concocted; a personification of the American dream.

Tran's story reads like a novel: Arriving in Los Angeles in 1980, he started crafting spicy sauces like the ones he'd made back home, where he ran his own food business and grew his own chiles. He soon launched Huy Fong Foods (named after the ship that took him out of Vietnam), then introduced his personal spin on a red chile sauce that originated in Si Racha, Thailand. Early on, he started bottling his sriracha in his small factory in Los Angeles' Chinatown and hand-delivering the bottles in a blue van to Asian restaurants around Southern California, along with other sauces he named in honor of places in southeast Asia. Word of mouth spread quickly; his current production facility in Irwindale, CA, converts over 100 million pounds of fresh chiles into hundreds of thousands of bottles of sriracha annually. Tran has turned his labor of love into an empire, with $80 million in revenue last year.

But not everything about the Sriracha story is so dreamy. Huy Fong just lost a major legal battle with Underwood Farms, the company's long-time supplier of fresh red chiles. And recently, the media has been calling the authenticity of Tran's Sriracha into question. Earlier this year, an NPR segment asked residents of Si Racha how they felt about Huy Fong's Sriracha, and they complained, variously, that it was too spicy, too bitter, and too unbalanced in flavor compared to the way the sauce is prepared locally. A follow-up essay in Coveteur echoed these complaints, arguing that Huy Fong Sriracha is not "real" sriracha, but instead an Americanized facsimile.

The latter argument—that a popular "ethnic" food is really just a bastardized knock-off of its traditional source—seems to resurface in the culinary zeitgeist every few years, whether it's California rolls, pasta, or the whole canon of American Chinese food. Too often, these conversations end up being smoke screens for our cultural biases. Authenticity in the culinary sense is complicated at best, and discussions about it tend to disproportionately target foods born of immigrant and diasporic communities of color. (When was the last time you saw a think piece about the authenticity of a grilled cheese sandwich?)

That's what seems to be happening with Tran and Huy Fong Sriracha. While immigrant chefs may have a long history of Americanizing their offerings, that doesn't mean that their food is somehow a lesser version of what exists back home. In fact, to accuse them of a lack of authenticity is to ignore the spectrum of realities of the immigrant experience in America.

Immigrant chefs of traditional cuisines operate under numerous and varying constraints. For one thing, they have to work with what's available to them in their new localities. As Washington, DC-based food writer Ruth Tam has explained, the history of import restrictions made it difficult-to-impossible for the Chinese chefs of the past to exactly recreate the flavors of home. She notes that Sichuan peppercorns, for example, only became legal in the US in 2005. As a result, these chefs used local ingredients as stand-ins and adapted their cuisine accordingly. They also took the market into account: Tam reminds us that "the U.S. restaurant business was and is an economic lifeline for new immigrants," necessitating the use of local flavors to maximize the appeal of traditional foods for those unfamiliar with these cuisines.

Is Huy Fong Sriracha "Americanized" because it tastes spicier or less complex than its Thai namesakes? Maybe, but what does that word, "Americanized," even mean? In the culinary world, to Americanize generally means to dilute or alter a dish's flavors and textures to appeal to the mainstream American palate. But a closer look at the Sriracha origin story reveals that catering to the broader public was pretty much the last thing on Tran's mind.

As he tells it, Huy Fong Sriracha was born with a very specific community in mind. In a recent conversation with MUNCHIES conducted in Mandarin, he explained that like many immigrant food products, his Sriracha was born out of constraints: While there were many Vietnamese and Cambodians in the United States, there simply weren't any spicy sauces available that worked with the dishes he was cooking at home. He could use chile sauces of American origin, but to him, these were all "vinegar and water and very thin." And while there were some Southeast Asian hot sauces available, they were almost exclusively of Thai origin, "because there weren't diplomatic relations with [Cambodia and Vietnam]."

Frustrated by the lack of chile sauces that appealed to his tastes, Tran decided to make his own. Utilizing fresh chiles grown in sunny southern California, he put some of his first sauces—including Chili Garlic, Sambal Oelek, and Sriracha—on the market. Sriracha carried a Thai name, a move that suggested some business acumen on his part. By the 1980s, Thai food was well on its way to being an established cuisine in the United States, and Thai markets were stocked with many brands of sriracha sauce. But Tran's sriracha was very different from its Thai counterparts, which are thinner, sweeter, and milder. "The sauce we make is spicy, and with chile sauces, the spicier, the better," Tran says.

For Tran, part of making these flavors more accessible to his community was making them affordable. In the 40-year history of Huy Fong Sriracha, Tran explained in his interview with MUNCHIES, he has never raised the wholesale price; his goal, as he sees it, has always been to "make a rich man's sauce at a poor man's price." Tran manages this in part by forgoing marketing, famously eschewing spending on advertising for Huy Fong. But he says he never skimps on the sauce itself. His exacting standards meant that, until its recent legal battles, Huy Fong sourced all of its bright red chiles from a single farm in California.

In the context of Tran's experience, and that of the broader immigrant experience, Americanization becomes a story of making things work. Frustratingly, the challenges of adapting one's cuisine to a new region consigns many chefs and purveyors to the same fate that many second- and third-generation Americans face: perpetual othering. They're perceived as not quite Chinese or Vietnamese or Ethiopian or Syrian enough, just as they struggle with the perception that they are never American enough.

But another way of looking at immigrant food purveyors like Tran is that in the process of making things work, they're creating something new. When the late Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold said that Korean tacos taste like Los Angeles, he wasn't being overly poetic. Those tacos could only have emerged in the context of Los Angeles, with its large Mexican and Korean communities and its incredible taco culture.

The same goes for Huy Fong Sriracha. If Tran Americanized his sauce, he did so with a broader definition of "American" than most of us usually have, creating a robust, regional product that reflects the Southeast Asian refugee community thriving in Southern California. It's a sauce that embodies the realities of being an immigrant entrepreneur in America, a marketplace in Southern California devoid of sauces that spoke to the Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian refugees living there, and a climate suitable for growing world-class jalapeños.

In a country that bills itself as a "nation of immigrants," food writers and critics in the US have an excruciatingly narrow definition of who gets to be "truly" American. Instead of scrutinizing this amazing cuisine with such a nebulous criterion as "authenticity," we should recognize these foods for being cleverly adapted, remixed, reshaped—and above all, for being very much real.

In a 2009 New York Times interview, Tran summed up this process of personalization and adaptation himself: "It's not a Thai sriracha. It's my sriracha."

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sriracha
authenticity
david tran