Jonathan O’Reilly, founder of Berlin-based Crazy Bastard Sauce, remembers eating spoonfuls of mustard to satisfy his hunger for heat when he was growing up in the west of Ireland. Glenn Williams, co-founder of cult London store Hop Burns & Black, recalls waking up in the middle of the night as a kid in New Zealand craving Tabasco. Noah Chaimberg, owner of Brooklyn hot-sauce emporium Heatonist, attributes a lifelong tolerance for heat to his grandmother: “Family legend has it that in the 1950s she was at a grocery store in Austin, Texas, and picked up a string of chillies,” he says. “The grocer said, ‘Lady, that’s not for you, that’s for the Mexicans. If you eat one, I will pay for all your groceries.’ She did. And he paid. She and I are the only two in the family with red hair…”
The story of hot sauce is an international one. Peppers from the Caribbean were brought to Europe by Columbus. Portuguese traders took them to colonies in Africa and trading routes in Asia, and in the following centuries chillies found their way into regional cuisines around the world.
According to a recent report, the global hot-sauce market is set to reach $3.77bn by 2026. Hot sauces are even taking off in countries where heat was never traditionally part of the cuisine. Such as Germany. “One time an elderly German woman threatened to call the police after trying one of my sauces because it was too hot,” says O’Reilly.
Meanwhile, our favourite fiery condiment has inveigled its way into all sorts of popular culture: Beyoncé keeps “hot sauce in my bag, swag”; we take enormous pleasure in watching other people eat them, especially on YouTube, where shows like Hot Ones find celebrities overwhelmed by weapons-grade varieties. “It’s food with special effects. It’s got drama. If I made mayonnaise, nobody would care, but people get really excited about chilli sauce,” says O’Reilly.
But it’s not all about heat, as a number of small-batch producers is proving. Take Chaimberg’s latest southeast-Asian-inspired Heatonist #5, produced in collaboration with Portland-based Marshall’s Haute Sauce. It combines bird’s eye chillies with umami-rich “seaweed pulled out of the Pacific Ocean”. Another made by Mellow Habanero, a farm producer in Sasayama, near Kyoto, pairs golden habanero chillies with fresh yuzu juice, creating a mildly sweet, fruity hot sauce in a vivid shade of yellow. Brooklyn-based Erica Diehl of Queen Majesty Hot Sauce is acclaimed for her combinations. These include scotch bonnet and ginger (inspired by her love for Caribbean food); jalapeño, tequila and lime (inspired by her love for spicy margaritas); and red habanero and black coffee. Now she’s toying with the idea of a lavender-coloured sauce “possibly with blueberries”.
O’Reilly’s Crazy Bastard Sauce is one step ahead, having already matched blueberries with the world’s hottest chilli, Carolina Reaper. “Reaper is a very floral chilli,” he explains. “If you cut one open, it smells like a bunch of flowers. Berries work with flowers.” He talks me through his other pairings: “Trinidad Scorpion is a citrusy chilli that works with clementine. The sweetness of habanero works with the tartness of tomatillo, with apple to mellow the heat. And the ghost pepper from northeast India combines aromas of fresh mango and cumin.”
A number of London producers are also drawing on their heritage. The Punjabi-inspired Baj’s Blazin’ Hot Sauce uses ingredients like green finger chillies, cumin, onion, garlic and coriander. Pat & Pinky’s hot sauce, named after its creator Pat Hinds and his Guyanese mother, features Wiri Wiri and Tiger Teeth chillies, Guyanese thyme, cucumber, black pepper and tangy green mango.
As for how to eat these sauces, the ones with a higher vinegar content are ideal for marinating. Chaimberg recommends Humble House Ancho & Morita, which contains tamarind, for a Latin-American-style barbecue, and Dirty Dick’s Hot Pepper on grilled salmon, as its tropical blend of bananas, raisins and pineapple caramelises the fish, creating “an almost candy salmon crust”.
For Diehl, the ultimate test is how a sauce works on an egg sandwich, but she also likes to use them as a culinary shortcut. “My jalapeño, tequila and lime sauce on avocado makes an instant salsa, and the scotch bonnet and ginger deepens any soup.” And how about Chaimberg’s tip for mild hot sauces? “There is one called The Classic – chile de arbol, organic apple cider vinegar, turmeric and a little garlic – that makes a great low-calorie dressing,” he says. I would drizzle that on a salad any day.