If it weren’t so delicious, it would be passé. Americans can now find Huy Fong Foods’ Sriracha sauce everywhere, from French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Michelin-starred restaurants to your local Applebee’s. For children of immigrants who, like me, grew up with the green-capped bottle on the kitchen table, the fuss can feel a little galling. In public-school lunchrooms across America in the 1980s and ’90s, we got made fun of for our weird and smelly food. Now, as adults, those old bullies rhapsodize about putting Sriracha on everything.
I’m not the first to get frustrated at the trendiness of “ethnic” cuisine. In recent years, chefs and immigrants’ sons Eddie Huang and Francis Lam have taken their pain public, writing in Gilt Taste that it feels like a slight when chefs are celebrated for cooking foods outside their cultures while immigrant restaurant owners, cooking the same dishes, don’t get the same acclaim. Still, Huang acknowledges that folks back in the motherland are constantly re-mixing their cuisines. So how protective should I really be of “rooster sauce”?
For one thing, Sriracha was never a purely Southeast Asian food. It’s a Southeast Asian American sauce, its exact recipe created by the ethnically Chinese David Tran after he arrived in the United States from Vietnam. For at least as long as I’ve known how to read, Sriracha’s back label has exhorted users to try the condiment on pasta, pizza, and hot dogs, among other things. It’s likely that Tran is talking to non-Asian Americans here, striving for broader appeal, but I always interpreted the label as Tran telling us we could make this new, alien food — American food — more palatable by applying his sauce too.
Whenever I cook the Chinese and Vietnamese dishes my mother taught me to make, I open all of the kitchen windows, turn on two overhead fans, light a scented candle, and close my bedroom door. I feel bad about it, like I’m trying to Yankee Candle Company away my origins, but I also don’t want my clothes to smell the way they did when I was growing up.
For America’s immigrant families, figuring out where we fit in is a lifetime’s work. Tran found success and cachet in making a product all his own. The rest of us will have to find our own solutions.