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The big hot sauce guide: how to tell your sriracha from your adobo

homemade hot sauce
One can now dedicate an entire kitchen-cupboard shelf to chilli sauces and pastes - Haarala Hamilton
homemade hot sauce
One can now dedicate an entire kitchen-cupboard shelf to chilli sauces and pastes - Haarala Hamilton

Ever since I can remember there has been a bottle of Encona West Indian Hot Sauce in my fridge. I like its no-nonsense shape – those sturdy shoulders – and the fact that you can pour out large dollops (there’s no little spout that restricts it to drips). My Encona love started in my student days. It became the ‘go to’ ingredient when I wanted something hot (which was often).

At one time Encona and Tabasco were the only chilli sauces in town (at least in my house). Now you practically need an entire shelf just for hot sauces and pastes. Indeed Waitrose reported a rise in sales of hot sauces by over 50 per cent in its Food & Drink Report 2023-2024, fuelled in part by a fiery fascination with the YouTube show Hot Ones, where interviews are conducted with celebrities while they eat spicy chicken wings with increasing levels of heat.

I have a motley collection, many bought, some homemade. There’s Moroccan harissa, Turkish pepper paste, Mexican adobo paste, Korean gochujang and an Eastern chilli ‘jam’ that I can’t claim is authentic but to which I’m quite addicted.

fresh chillies
From fresh and fiery to smoky and woody, chillies lend their flavour to all manner of condiments - Haarala Hamilton

Their colours range from bright scarlet to a deep rusty brown and they vary hugely in character. The Mexican adobo paste is made from toasted chipotle and ancho chillies and is smoky and woody. At the other end of the scale the chilli jam is sweet, sticky and simple. The Turkish pepper paste is fresh and front-of-the-mouth hot. The harissa, meanwhile, is multi faceted – there’s cumin, caraway and coriander in there as well as chillies.

Sriracha I only got into a couple of years ago. It’s another bottle I like – big and plastic with a flying goose on the front. I find its taste a bit tinny but it’s extremely hot, and a godsend when you want a ‘high note’ chilli taste (it’s neither deep nor smoky).

Some of the pastes are multi-purpose – harissa and adobo paste can be used as marinades as well as being added to braises and dressings, for instance. Spread harissa (thinned with a little olive oil and lemon juice) on lamb chump chops before grilling and serving them with this kamut and chickpea salad. Or use adobo paste as a marinade or a sauce (adobo is the classiest ‘cook-in sauce’ you can have around) for big meaty pork chops.

Here’s a rundown of the characteristics and uses of the huge array of chilli pastes and sauces you can find now, plus a few recipes for some you can make yourself. They’re especially useful in barbecue season as you have instant marinades and dips to hand, but they’re still be useful – to warm you up – in the colder months. I confess to keeping nearly all of them (almost all of the time). Yes, I like it hot.

Harissa

The North African chilli paste. Harissa has a complex flavour and contains a host of different spices. Some, such as Belazu’s version, even contain rose petals (I challenge you to detect their flavour, though). I like ones where I can really taste the caraway.

Belazu rose harissa
Belazu rose harissa, made with rose petals

Little bowls of harissa – slightly diluted with broth – can be served with couscous. Each diner can then add as much or as little of it as they like to bowls of braised lamb and vegetables.

I use harissa in marinades, dressings for North African inspired salads and to stir into braises and casseroles. Le Phare du Cap Bon is my favourite brand, purely for the beauty of the packaging. It cheers me up every time I see it.

Try these harissa recipes
Creamy harissa pasta
Baked sweet potatoes with harissa chickpeas and tahini sauce
Harissa and orange chicken kebabs

Gochujang

Korean and, currently, pretty hip. Gochujang is slightly sweet, very thick and made from glutinous rice, fermented soybeans, salt and red peppers. It’s used in the sauce that’s served with deep-fried Korean chicken wings but it works well in other cuisines. Currently I’m adding it to mayonnaise to slather on sandwiches of roast pork and sweet and sour cucumber.

Slightly sweet gochujang can be stirred into mayonnaise to enjoy in sandwiches
Slightly sweet gochujang can be stirred into mayonnaise to enjoy in sandwiches

Try these gochujang recipes
Rib of beef with gochujang sprouts
Korean fire chicken
Kimchi rice

Adobo

A Mexican chilli sauce. Various dried chillies can be used but it always contains paprika, oregano and citrus juice or vinegar. It’s not very hot – that’s not its purpose, it’s more about capturing the flavour of various dried chilli.

I’ve never found a good commercial version (they’re not easy to find here for a start) so make my own (I put a good splash of sherry or sherry vinegar in mine. It’s not authentic but I like the sweet woodiness it imparts). You can use it almost as a cook-in sauce. I also add big dollops of it to Mexican flavoured braises (it really deepens a pot of chilli) and use it as a marinade.

Try this homemade adobo paste recipe

Sambal oelek

A chilli paste used in Malaysian, Indonesian and Sri Lankan dishes. The word sambal refers to the chillies while ‘oelek’ – which is Dutch – refers to the dish (the ‘ulek’) in which the chillies are crushed. It’s used in marinades and sauces.

Try these sambal oelek recipes
Sambal butter noodles
Balinese roast pork with hot sweet-sour salad
Balinese fish, potato and coconut curry

Sriracha

This hot sauce is, supposedly, named after the coastal Thai city Si Racha (though nobody is quite sure of the origin) and has distinctively hot, sweet, sour, salty flavours. In Thailand it’s used mostly with seafood, in Vietnam as an accompaniment to pho, with fried noodles and in sauces.

spicy tinned tuna
A splash of sriracha can elevate store-cupboard staples such as tinned tuna - Haarala Hamilton

It’s big in America where the most popular brand, with a big rooster on the bottle, is often referred to as ‘rooster sauce’. There are quite a few brands but I use Flying Goose. The same company do versions that are sourer, have added garlic and contain lemongrass. You can get a ‘tasting set’ of four bottles should you be that curious.

Try these sriracha recipes
Sriracha chicken wings
Spicy tinned tuna with rice
Raw salad with lime dressing and peanuts

Thai sweet chilli sauce

Commercial versions of this can be quite cloying. Made from chillies, vinegar, garlic and sugar, you need one that has a good balance of sweet and tart. I keep a bottle for adding to dressings – Thai Taste is a good brand, but if I want to use it as a dipping sauce I usually make my own.

Try these sweet chilli sauce recipes
Thai sweet chilli sauce
Pork and bamboo shoot dumplings with sweet chilli sauce
Sweet chilli ‘shawarma’ burger

Lao gan ma (Chinese pepper sauce)

Prawn skewers with a heatwave salad of tomatoes, lime and crispy chilli recipe
Prawn skewers with a heatwave salad of tomatoes, lime and crispy chilli

The most famous brand of chilli oil used in China and a brilliant store-cupboard addition. It is really a chilli oil – containing chillies, fermented soybean, onions and lip-numbing Sichuan pepper – rather than a sauce, but it can be used like a sauce. Spoon it over fried tofu, serve it with wontons, and add it to dressings.

Try this chilli pepper sauce recipe
Prawn skewers with a heatwave salad of tomatoes, lime and crispy chilli

West Indian hot sauce

Fruitier than most chilli sauces, this is made from Scotch bonnet and habanero peppers. Encona is the brand I buy and use a lot, though it’s younger than I thought (it was created in 1975). The fact that it’s fruity as well as hot is what makes it so useable. You can also get Walkerswood Jamaican Scotch Bonnet Pepper Sauce.

Try these hot sauce recipes
Homemade hot sauce
Hot sauce spaghetti

Biber salcasi

Not easy to find, this one, but worth tracking down. It’s Turkish and is made with a mixture of sun-dried chilli peppers and salt. It can be either sweet or more savoury depending on which peppers are used. It’s generally hot – one little dab will get your taste buds dancing. I like it with lamb kebabs – tease your mouth with little bits followed by cooling yoghurt.

Louisiana pepper sauce

big toast with jammy eggs
A drop or two of Tabasco transforms treats on toast - Haarala Hamilton

Tabasco, which is synonymous with Louisiana pepper sauce, was the first chilli sauce I can ever remember seeing. It has been made by the McIlhenny Company on Avery Island, Louisiana since 1868 and is potent, with a thin texture – that’s why you add it in shakes rather than dollops – which makes it good for drinks (such as Bloody Mary) as well as cooking.

The original is still going strong but you can now get a range of versions, chipotle, habanero and jalapeno among them. Crystal Louisiana Hot Sauce, made in New Orleans with cayenne peppers since 1923, is its nearest rival. It’s milder and slightly fruitier.

Try these Tabasco recipes
Spicy chicken burgers with special sauce
Hotslaw
Big toast with roast tomatoes, jammy eggs, mayo and hot sauce


What’s your hot sauce of choice? Tell us in the comments below

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