“Australians have always enjoyed food that lends itself to hot sauce,” says Douglas Compeau, who co-founded Australia’s Diemen’s Hot Sauce in 2013 with his twin brother Derrick. The duo uses mountain pepper grown in the cool-temperate rainforests of southern Tasmania and locally grown chillies to make a sauce they say has a distinctive fruity flavour with hints of the Aussie bush.
“Outdoor cooking and barbeque are part of Australian culture, and hot sauce is a perfect marriage to those flavours,” says Compeau. “If you don't put hot sauce on your avocado on toast, then you're missing out.”
Hot sauce is not a staple in Australia the way it is in other parts of the world. It’s believed chilli plants were cultivated in Mexico and Bolivia 2000 years ago, and that region has a wonderfully diverse array of native chillies that are used in countless hot sauces and in many other ways, too.
Save 20% when you buy two or more Broadsheet books. Order now to make sure they arrive in time for Christmas.SHOP NOW
Southeast Asia, in particular, has a penchant for the piquant; almost every table is dressed with a bottle of syrupy, neon-red chilli sauce. The US, too. “It's everywhere in Nashville,” says Belles Hot Chicken owner chef Morgan McGlone. “You have it with hash browns in the morning or with fresh oysters. It’s around all the time, for all meals.”
The chain, which is largely responsible for popularising Nashville hot chicken in Melbourne and Sydney, has developed five of its own hot sauces, from the mild Southern to its Really Fucking Hot. Bottles are available to buy in Belles restaurants. “The market is definitely getting bigger,” says McGlone.
Melbourne Hot Sauce (MHS) founder Richard Nelson agrees. He started the brand in 2013 and says demand in Australia has expanded exponentially over the past 10 years. “The amount of local commercial manufactures has grown from just a handful to around 50 to 60 in 2018.”
NSW is the hottest state, according to Tabasco. Australians bought 6000 bottles of the stuff from grocers between March 2017 and March 2018 – 31 per cent of those in NSW, 25 per cent in Queensland and 23 in Victoria. Tasmania’s share was the lowest at just two per cent.
If you had chilli sauce at home as a child in Australia, it was probably Tabasco. The vinegar-heavy Louisiana-style commercial sauce is the oldest in the US; in 2018 it clocks up 150 years of distilled vinegar mashed with salt and capsicum frutescens (a species of chilli plant).
Tabasco was founded in 1868 and is still family owned and operating from the place it was founded – Louisiana’s Avery Island. It’s a pepper sauce – “the most famous, most preferred pepper sauce in the world,” according to the company’s website. It’s hot, sharp and tangy, and adds more acidity to food than heat.
And while it continues to sell well, The OG chilli-sauce company no longer runs a peppery monopoly. In Australia, the hot-sauce game is booming, and producers are making products that are nuanced and complex.
“People’s tastes … have definitely changed in the last few years,” says MHS’s Richard Nelson. “Hot sauce has kind of splintered into two distinct categories: one [is] pushing the boundaries of insane-heat hot sauces, and the other [is] milder [and] flavour-driven.”
McGlone says it’s partly because people's heat thresholds are increasing and, “Australians have a much more adventurous palate as we are exposed to a lot of Asian cuisine”.
This may have something to do with the worldwide explosion of LA-made Huy Fong Foods brand Sriracha, which coincided with the rise of social media and “foodie” culture. Huy Fong's factory is an hour from Underwood Family Farms, which has grown Sriracha's chillis for more than 20 years. The close proximity of the farm where they are picked to where they are bottled means the chillis are ripe and fresh when crushed into sauce.
When the fiery condiment was criticised by consumers for being too spicy, founder and Vietnamese expatriate David Tran’s response was: “Hot sauce must be hot. If you don’t like it, use less. We don’t make mayonnaise here.”
The brand was founded almost 40 years ago, but sales erupted around 2012. That year, 20 million bottles of Sriracha were sold. That same year the Washington Post reported that the hot-sauce industry was the eighth fastest growing industry in the US.
Thai-food expert Australia’s David Thompson of Long Chim (a small chain of casual restaurants in Singapore, Perth, Sydney and Melbourne) told Broadsheet last year he has been using a version of Sriracha for more than 20 years, called Koh Loy. He discovered it in Si Racha, a small town to the south-east of Bangkok. He says Si Racha is the probable origin of Sriracha sauce (the spellings differ due to the inherently imperfect science of translating Thai characters to English). “Sriracha is absolutely sweeping the world at the moment,” he says, “but this is the one sauce that has the provenance.”
And Australian sauces are making a global impact too. Douglas Compeau of Diemen’s says the company’s use of native Tasmanian mountain pepper berry – a pepper five times hotter than black pepper – gives its sauces fruitiness. “Hot sauce is a condiment – it needs to complement your food, not clash with it.”
Melbourne Hot Sauce, which sold more than 100,000 bottles last year, has begun working with local breweries, honey producers and coffee roasters to create flavours. “The key to a great hot sauce is balance and depth of flavour using simple, pronounced ingredients rather than [having] just a one-dimensional focus on heat,” says Nelson.
This trend also coincides with the step away from extreme cravings for fire. “In the ’90s and 2000s the global category was driven by ‘death’ sauces – how hot can you get,” says Compeau.
Blowing one’s head off became something of a novelty when the Scoville rating (the system used to measure chilli heat) became part of common vernacular. Compeau thinks it also had something to do with the somewhat addictive-to-watch horror videos that document people’s reactions to taking a huge bite out of a Carolina reaper, an insanely hot pepper.
Hot Ones, a Youtube channel that does just that, shows high-profile guests such as US rapper Wiz Khalifa and actor Natalie Portman sampling sauces and chugging back milk to offset the heat. It has almost four million subscribers.
A lot of fans of the condiment say it’s not the heat they like, but the taste. “I prefer vinegar-based hot sauces and using fruity-style chillies as opposed to ridiculous hot sauces that actually have no flavour,” says Belles’ Morgan McGlone. “They're awful. Hot sauces made with fermented vinegar can round out a flavour profile as opposed to a straight-up, intense hot chilli flavour.”
In Sydney’s eastern suburbs, Matt Taylor brews a range of Bear Brew sauces using a natural process of fermentation and 98 per cent Aussie ingredients. He doesn’t add vinegar, refined sugar or additives, instead blending fermented capsicum with reaper chillies, ghost chillies and smoked lime and garlic to create something that is equal parts smoky, sour and spicy.
“I find that the vinegar becomes the overriding flavour,” says Taylor. “Using fermentation means we get a full-flavoured product that tastes fruitier and spicier, and once blended, it has a fantastic texture. The other benefits include a more nutritionally rich product. Capsicums and chillies – basically all peppers – are a great source of vitamin C and A, and fibre, and fermenting them helps make the content more bio-available [because] our bodies are better equipped to break it down.”
Here are six Australian-made hot sauces to try:
Diemen’s – Starblazer Barrel Aged Whisky Hot Sauce
Melbourne Hot Sauce – Habanero Acid
Melbourne Hot Sauce – Smoked Jalapeno
Changz Hot Sauce – Czech Mate
Bear Brewing – Naturally Fermented Hot Sauce
Jungle Rain – Aztec Chocolate Fire