Holy habanero! Hot sauce is hopping.
The stuff, once mainly known as the red and green granddaddy of heat, Tabasco, now often stakes a claim to its own section in your local grocery store, set apart by wacky labels that bear names ranging from the insane to the nasty -- with more than a billion dollars posted in annual sales.
To the connoisseur chilihead, shopping for the sauce is a feast for the eyes, then the funny bone. When strung together, the names on the labels can turn into instant folklore: The scorned woman jumped up and kissed the wicked chicken before traveling to hellenback in search of the cosmic chili, the hottest spot in the galaxy!
At Eddie's of Roland Park, grocery buyers often opt not to display certain sauces because of the raunchy names, says Suzanne Guy, store gourmet merchandiser. On the shelf of the upscale grocery are the likes of tamer names like Dragon Sauce, Devil Drops, Zen and Passion, Chesapeake Fire and Smoking Oranges.
"Because of demand, we increased the selection in our hot-sauce section last summer to over 100 labels," Guy says. "The most risque one was Scorned Woman, but we don't want to offend our customers because some of the labels are wild."
Big Boy Market, at 218 N. Paca St. near Lexington Market, is another mecca for fiery foods. Owner Kukiat Jenkusol has stocked about 35 fiery imports from Thailand, the Caribbean and Latin America that stretch out on a shelf in the middle of the busy store. Pointing to the Thai Sweet Chili Sauce, Scotch Bonnet Pepper Sauce, Flambeau Salsa and Calypso Sauce, Jenkusol says the products are the store's biggest draw.
"It makes food taste better -- and you can sweat without exercising," he says.
There's really no main recipe for a hot sauce. The characteristic ingredient is, of course, the pepper, which to a chilihead is as sacred as a grape is to a winemaker. Jalapeno, cherry peppers, super chilies, chili tepin, serrano and the world's hottest pepper, the red savina habanero, are crushed, pureed, dried and even pulverized to make the combustible sauces.
Some hot sauces are created in small kitchens by heat-seeking rebels who want to turn the world on its ear with a new recipe of liquid fire. If the stuff gets bottled, it most likely will be dressed up with a wild and crazy label so consumers take notice, Guy says. The latest trend, she adds, is a fruit-based sauce and salsa that blends the sweet flavors of oranges, mangoes and apples into meltdown mania. A new line of the fruity fire created by Linda and Pete Sullivan of Montgomery County is for sale at Eddie's under the Maui Pepper label.
For Monkton resident Rick Seaby, coming up with his own hot sauce recipe was a dream come true. Seaby, who by day is director of engineering at WJZ-TV in Baltimore, recently introduced his new Rick's Ragin' Blazin' Tequilanero Hot Sauce at local stores such as Eddie's, Graul's markets, Watson's Garden Center in Lutherville and Wells Discount Liquors near the city-county line.
"It's hot as the dickens, but it tastes good. It plumb gets your attention," says Seaby, who has a collection of 300 bottles of hot sauce lining his wall at home. "I'm a hot sauce fanatic. The whole hot sauce thing is like a cult. People are like, come on, hurt me."
Sales of hot sauces and salsas soared during the 1990s, and today their popularity has left lonely, bland ketchup in the dust. At last summer's National Association for the Specialty Food Trade Fancy Food Show in New York, 450 brands of hot sauce were on display, a bounty compared with five years ago when there were 150 brands, says Ron Tanner, vice president of communications for the association.
"People just like them," Tanner says. "And with hot sauces, people are looking for new experiences -- they are always looking for something hotter."
Robb Walsh, editor of Chile Pepper, a magazine based in Fort Worth, Texas, that is the chilihead's bible, predicts that over the next decade, $1 of every $7 spent on food will be spent on ethnic brands. "The hot and spicy food business has gone from being a niche market to being part of the American food industry," says Walsh, who admits he often throws diced jalapenos into a brownie mix at home in hopes of training his children's palates.
Walsh's magazine reported in its current issue that retail sales of hot and spicy foods "could top $1.8 billion this year, up from $1 billion in 1994." The leap was credited by the magazine, in part, because of immigration patterns in the United States over the past two decades as populations in U.S. Hispanic and Indonesian communities have increased.
"The salsa industry currently produces a total of about 50 million cases a year," Chile Pepper reports. "That's 78.1 million gallons, enough to fill the Exxon Valdez 1 1/2, almost half a gallon for every man, woman and child in the U.S."