Everybody Loves Srira-cha-cha

This morning’s Word of Mouth blog alerted me to a possibility that I don’t much like to imagine: a potential world shortage of sriracha chilli sauce.

I’m one of a growing number who have come to be mildly addicted to the lurid red stuff, though I’m not quite at the point of putting it on everything I eat – a stage I reached with sweet chilli sauce around a decade ago, before the excitement wore off as rapidly as it had developed.

Still, I don’t much like to find myself sriracha-less. As Sue Quinn observes in the article, “a dash of sriracha, with its rich combination of chilli, vinegar, garlic, sugar and salt, can hide a multitude of culinary sins.”

True enough; though I’d offer a more positive assessment than that. As an ingredient as much as a condiment, it’s a relatively cheap and convenient pathway to a multitude of virtues. And while the rise of sriracha might be perceived as a prime example of our collective chilli addiction, I don’t believe it’s all about the heat.

Sugar and vinegar are, for me, the unsung seasonings. Most of our table sauces, spicy or otherwise, rely on their capacity to offset one another. But in much of our cooking, we tend to forget about them.

Much of our passion for sriracha arises from the fact that it achieves the sweet-sour balance that best suits our tastes. Sweet chilli sauce is too sickly, the sharpness of the vinegar obliterated by an excess of sugar. With Tabasco, it’s the other way round. But sriracha gets it just right. It’s the chilli sauce Goldilocks would go for.

To my mind, appreciating the power of the sweet-sour balance is a fundamental part of cooking, whether or not chillies are involved. But if you always cook from recipes, it’s an appreciation that you may never gain.

Most recipes will invite the reader, almost as an afterthought, to “season to taste with salt and black pepper”. I’ve rarely, if ever, seen a recipe that directs the cook to season a meal the way I normally do: with salt and pepper, yes, but also with something sweet and something sour, judiciously added and counterbalanced to lift the flavours of the dish at the last moment.

But the dutiful recipe-follower, obeying the writer’s instructions to the letter, is left somewhat hamstrung. He or she may possess the tools to enhance the dish, but without the explicit authorisation of the recipe’s creator, is reluctant to use them. The role of enhancing and balancing the flavours is handed over to the eaters, armed with ketchup, mustard or, these days, sriracha. And the shared perception at the end of the meal is that the cook has produced something rather dull, only rendered interesting by the welcome presence of various types of magic dust on the table.

Get the balance of flavours right before you serve the meal, and it will have a quite different impact. If a finished stew fails to inspire and you’re not sure what to do, think sweet and sour, not just salt and pepper. And if a further flavour boost is required, bear in mind that if something works as a condiment, it will work just as well as an ingredient (perhaps with the exception of mayonnaise).

That last observation is central to my favourite post-pub meal, ideally suited to those times when knife work is too hazardous to contemplate.

Fill a shallow oven dish with a single layer of spare ribs and douse with sriracha, a little soy sauce and enough water to (just about) cover the ribs. Cover with foil and cook in a medium oven for an hour or so, or a low oven for just about as long as you like, then remove the foil and turn up the heat, allowing the ribs to brown while the sauce reduces.

Accompanied by a pile of lovingly microwaved rice – 2 parts rice to 3 parts water, covered and microwaved on medium until the water has been absorbed – it’s a meal that suits both my tastes and my capabilities after a night on the sauce (and for once, I don’t mean sriracha).

It works because sriracha does. The sweet-sour balance is already just about right, and the chilli and garlic I crave are present and correct, saving me a chopping job I’m ill-suited to undertake. Nothing else is needed, other than a little extra salt (from the soy sauce) to suit my tipsy tastes.

A big bottle of sriracha, costing as little as a couple of quid depending on where you look, will be enough for dozens of meals along these lines, with plenty to spare for table use. Compare that to the price of almost any jar or sachet of sauce in the supermarket, and the prospect of a sriracha drought becomes as much of a worry for the pocket as the palate.

Fortunately, the immediate threat to sriracha production in California has abated, though a further hearing is due to take place later this month. And there are plenty of other producers around the world, so we’re unlikely to be issued with sriracha ration books (sriration books?) just yet.

But I’m not taking any chances. A global wine shortage I can just about handle; a sriracha shortage I can’t. I’m off to the Chinese supermarket.

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