Hot Sauces Fire Up NYC Tastebuds

By Preeti Singh

A smorgasbord of chillies

A smorgasbord of chillies

Torchbearer, Psycho Chick, Karma, Rapture, Slaughter, and Ultimate Annihilation are not the names of apocalyptic video games; they are some  of the hot sauces the visitors to the Chile Pepper festival at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden sampled on Saturday,October 1, 2016.

Visitors went from table to table tasting the sauces that ranged from scorching to mild, sweet to tangy, served on cheese, pretzels, nachos, chips, split pea fritters, rice and beans, and even apples.  Some brave hearts also tried the sauce neat on their palms. As the heat hit their tongues, people responded with delight, confusion, surprise and even horror.

“Tasting sauces is almost a masochistic exercise,” said Scott Stensland, a visitor who had an array of hot sauces in his bag. “ It is hot in-hot out, and even my pee burns the next day. But I love it.”

In its 24th year, the annual Chile Pepper festival lets consumers taste the products of manufacturers who use chile peppers in what they make. This year, more than 60 vendors participated, and while sauces dominated the offerings, other products included chili infused rubs, preserves, pickles, curries, sauerkraut, kimchi, chips, candy, nuts, chocolates, and even, drinks.

A feisty sauce

A feisty sauce

A 2014 Euromonitor study revealed that in the last decade, the hot sauce segment  has outstripped the combined growth of other condiments like ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard and  barbeque sauce, growing by 150% since 2005.  According to IBIS World, an industry market research organization, the industry is expected to reach $1.7 dollars by 2017. While the leader of the industry continues to be McIllhenny Company’s iconic Tabasco, a number of regional, hyper-local brands are finding spaces in supermarkets, ethnic stores, bars and restaurants.

“ People like the idea of local, artisanal foods.” said John Bratton, owner of NYC Hot Sauce that contains hot habaneros. “Sauces turn ordinary meals into edgy, interesting ones.”

The promise of edginess, of something shocking and unexpected defined the designs on most of the hot sauce bottles at the festival. On the outside, each bottle of sauce was a work of art, with striking names, graphics and colors that gave a hint of what lay within. Zombies on the Apocalypse bottle with the ghost peppers, for example, or bees on a honey mustard sauce, and a string of peppers on colorful labels for Nafi’s sauces that contain African spices.  

Inside the bottle the sauces showcased the spectrum of peppers on the Scoville scale, a scale that measures the pungency of the chilli peppers, on display. And all ranges of tongue-burning peppers filled the tables, from ghost peppers and carolina reapers to trinidad scorpion pepper, habaneros, and bird’s chilli pepper. There were milder ones too, which were still pretty hot, with jalapenos, serranos, and guajillos. Many sauces contained blends of fruits and vegetables with the peppers to minimize heat, or horseradish, garlic and other spices to delay the chilli kick.The sauces were available in 3 oz to 8 oz bottles and were in the price range of $5 to $12.

As visitors tried the sauces vendors shared tips on the versatility of their products. The sauces could be used as marinades, dipping sauces, for stir fries or as additions to other gravies and curries to enhance flavors. From pretzels, kabobs, quesadillas, burritos to chili, burgers, wings and sandwiches, the smorgasbord for hot sauces is large.

Ethnic sauces on sale.

Ethnic sauces on sale.

Private chef Davitt Conroy’s pitch for his new Black Irish sauces, made with fermented peppers and fruits,  was met with amusement among visitors. “A hot sauce does not have to be hot,” said Conroy. “ I drink these concoctions when I have acidity or am hungover. They soothe me.”

The diverse ethnic groups in the city are one of the driving forces behind the trend. “ Mexico has hundreds of varieties of chillies, and I wanted to use them to create authentic sauces,” said Julio MM, executive chef at Cantina Royal. “ The kind that made you taste Mexico.” At his table, the hottest named XXX was a blend of 35 different chillies that Julio sources directly from Mexico.

Meanwhile, the people who attended the festival  enjoyed the sizzle offered up.

Erin Biba, for example, has a cartful of sauces next to her dining table at home, and she was on the lookout for sauces that leave a tangy aftertaste. She thought the serrano based Bronx Hot Sauce and Auria’s Malaysian sauces with a coconut base met her expectations.

John Kehoe , on the other hand, searched for the hottest sauce and ended up settling on Rapture, a sauce featuring  Trinidad Moruga and ghost peppers. “ It has a serious kick.” he said. Pass the chips.