Hot sauce is all about the chile pepper. This family of peppers, which includes common varieties like cayenne and jalapeño, is native to Mexico and as the story goes with many culinary ingredients, it was incorporated into trade routes by the 15th century. What people did with these new, exotic chile peppers wove into their respective cuisines providing the many pungent, savory hot sauces we know today.
Recipes vary by pepper and how it’s prepared (fresh, roasted, or fermented), accompanying herbs and spices, as well as its consistency, which can range from a paste to smooth and pourable. This is your global guide to hot sauce, where you’ll learn the providence of many notable varieties and how they’re made.
Nam Prik Pao
This chile paste is from Thailand, where it’s infused into dishes like tom yum soup, pad Thai, and even used as a spread on sandwiches. In the Thai language, “nam prik” means chile paste and “pao”
means roasted, so although there are many versions of this sauce, the basic recipe includes roasted chiles, onions, and garlic. The type of chile is also rarely specified, but varieties like spur chiles or guajillo are great options for a sauce with mild heat, while bird’s eye chiles are better matched for those who like their food spicy.
Chinese Hot Chili Oil
Although it’s common to say, “Chinese cuisine”, each province has its own culinary touch. So although Chinese hot chili oil is common throughout the country, you’ll see differences between recipes and how it’s used, depending on which region you’re exploring. It’s especially popular in Sichuan, Hunan, and Shaanxi regional cuisines, where a blend of punchy flavors and time-intensive cooking techniques are favored. As a result, cooks rarely stop at simply infusing oil with chiles
and include ingredients like ginger, garlic, sesame seeds, and Sichuan peppercorns.
Chogochujang is a condiment rooted in Korean cuisine, where it frequently accompanies famed dishes like bibimbap. That said, chogochujang owes a large part of its flavor to gochujang, a potent paste made from chile powder, glutinous rice, malt, fermented soybean powder, and salt. It’s then
left to ferment for no less than 6 months—all in good time, right? Although making gochujang for yourself is ambitious (considering even most Koreans buy it by the tub), iterations like chogochujang in which additional ingredients work to balance the intense flavors of gochujang, are achievable.
The origin of Sriracha Sauce is much debated, but many say the Thai brand Sriraja Panich is the original creator, making it in Si Racha, Thailand, in the 1930s. This bright red, multi-purpose hot sauce is made from red chili peppers, garlic, vinegar, salt, and sugar. The sauce is hot and tangy with just a hint of sweetness, which sets it apart from your garden variety hot sauces. The origins and influences of the sauce are as multicultural as its appeal. Uses range from dips, marinades, stews, to even cocktails.
Sambal sauce is native to Indonesia and in fact, the name is Javanese. There are hundreds of varieties of sambal and it’s made its way into kitchens in Malaysia, Singapore, and even the Netherlands since the Dutch colonized the archipelago in the 19th century. Bird’s eye chiles or cayenne peppers are commonly chosen for sambals, where they’re ground into a paste and
then given depth with an array of ingredients like ginger, shallot, and shrimp paste. This version is from Malaysia, where they serve it over whole fried fish or with shrimp fried rice.
The Middle East
Popularly referred to as schug, this fresh chile paste is from Yemen, where it’s called sahawiq. There’s both red and green varieties of schug, the main difference being that the former is made with red chiles, which normally implies a spicier profile. Ingredients like garlic, cilantro, black cumin, and olive oil are then blended into the recipe, resulting in a flavorful sauce that’s used to complement a variety of dishes. In Yemen, you’ll spot it with saltah, a savory fenugreek stew, and in Israel it’s often spooned over falafel and shawarma.
Often compared to a chutney, amba sauce is made with mango, chile pepper, and a milieu of spices like sumac and fenugreek. It’s originally from Iraq, where it’s paired with kibbeh, kebabs, and a number of fish dishes. But deliciousness has a way of spreading and sharing itself, so you’ll also find amba sauce in Israel, frequently served with a sabich sandwich.
Don’t let its fiery hue fool you, harissa has a relatively mild heat profile. Although it’s commonly used in Morocco, Algeria, and Israel, harissa was originally developed in Tunisia. Here, an endemic chile called the Baklouti pepper is the base ingredient but any dried red chile of choice is suitable. It’s then finished with coriander seeds, cumin, caraway, and olive oil. The end result is a smokier rather than spicy sauce that’s delicious over both traditional and modern dishes. Serve it with heaps of fluffy couscous or simply with a fried egg and slice of toast.
Caribbean Hot Pepper Sauce
The Caribbean has long played a key geographical role in trade and power and as a result, it’s brimming with a wide range of cultures. This is also reflected in the region’s cuisine, where one can find traces of Creole, Cajun, South American, African, European, and Indian influences. Hot pepper sauce is a frequent tableside companion and can be readily identified for its use of the Scotch bonnet pepper. It’s native to Africa and an extremely hot variety of chile so if this calls to you, add a few shakes to your beef tripe soup or callaloo.
Jamaica and its cuisine have been heavily impacted by the slave trade, so many of the flavors and cooking techniques serve as an homage to the Africans who were brought there. To this end, Jamaican jerk sauce uses many quintessential West African ingredients, like Scotch bonnet peppers, thyme, and ginger. It’s a complexly flavored sauce, perfect for marinating and grilling meats, like the famed jerk chicken.
Mexican Hot Sauce
Mexico is the veritable mother of the chile, and each region has its own favorite variety. The Yucatán has the habanero, Mexico City has the puya, and Veracruz the chile de árbol. That said, this hot sauce is a take on the sort that you can find in just about any authentic Mexican joint. It’s made with jalapeño peppers, which are considered moderately spicy, so if you want to kick things up a notch (or two), substitute a few jalapeños for habaneros or Scotch bonnet peppers. It’s a versatile hot sauce that you can shake over huevos rancheros or tacos al pastor with equal success.
Hot Chile Barbecue Sauce
With ingredients like ketchup and brown sugar, you can guess this hot barbecue sauce owes its creation to cooks in the US. That said, barbecue sauce has very different meanings, depending on where you are. Take Texas style sauce, which is a blend of chili powder, Worcestershire, and butter among other trappings. It’s only faintly recognizable when compared to East Carolina sauce, which uses primarily vinegar and some cayenne pepper. This version blends several styles and its balance between sweet, pungent, and spicy makes it a great companion to many dishes, not just pulled pork or ribs.
Ají Amarillo Sauce
Peru is home to a vast number of climates and this diversity is reflected in their cuisine. One can enjoy ceviche on the coast, a range of tropical fruits in the Amazon, and guinea pig or alpaca in the Andes. That said a native chile in Peru, the ají pepper, is one ingredient that binds nearly all regional cuisines. Unadulterated, it’s spicy, though when prepared in a traditional ají sauce its seeds are often removed to reduce its heat. Ají pepper also ads a vibrant yellow hue to any dish it’s paired with, like the classic papas a la Huancaína or ají de gallina.