Chilli sauce: what’s behind the trend?

08 June 2021, 08:48 AM
  • It makes lips tingle and shop tills sing, says Sally-Jayne Wright, and there are plenty of tasty options to try
Chilli sauce: what’s behind the trend?

In 2021, the number of chilli sauces entered into the Great Taste Awards grew by 30%, year on year. Importer MexGrocer sold double its usual quota of Valentina hot sauce in 2020. At one stage, sales of Lao Gan Ma chilli oils were up 1,900% at the online grocer Sous Chef.

Speciality Food’s editor admits to eight chilli products in her fridge which she uses for dips, marinades and shaking onto brunch. Her international haul ranges from: Tracklements Hot Chilli Sauce, through Firelli’s Italian Hot Sauce, to Komathy’s Kitchen pastes from Sri Lanka. She also owns the current buzz product, LGM crispy chilli oil.

What’s behind the trend?

Consumers miss exotic holidays and eating out. Plus, we Brits have always enjoyed condiments, trying everything from harissa to fiery Jamaican chutney. For novice lockdown cooks, many of whom are vegan, chilli gives even mediocre efforts a lift (sorry). On down days, chilli makes us happy.

Yes, why do chillies make us feel great?

Capsaicin, the hot oil in chilli, binds to the pain receptor TRPV1, which our brains also use to detect temperature changes. This is why chillies make us sweat. After overstimulation, neurons stop responding and prompt the release of pain-killing endorphins, which leads to a high. This may explain the belief hot food is addictive.

Why do parts of India, Africa, Thailand and China use more chillies in their cuisine?

It may be down to capsaicin’s anti-microbial function. Infectious diseases thrive in hot humid valleys close to the equator so an extra-spicy palate evolved to save lives.

Which chillies are hottest and which mildest?

Habaneros and Scotch bonnets top the charts for eye-watering potential while cherry peppers and Hungarian hot paprika come bottom. Tabasco sauce and jalapeno fall in the middle.

The seeds contain the heat, right?

They hold only about 3% of heatgiving capsaicin; the membranes have much more. To tame chillies, cut out the membranes (and thus the seeds) wearing gloves to prevent nasty surprises later on.

Are chillies healthy?

Yes and no. Fresh chillies are a source of antioxidants, vitamin C, vitamin A, iron and potassium. They may assist weight loss, helping to curb appetite. The downside is that capsaicin can inflame the digestive tract so moderation is advisable.

I grew up eating chillies. Do you think I’ve built up a tolerance?

Undoubtedly. For this feature, chef Nina Rich, who is of Sikh-Hindu descent, sampled Pico’s new Naga Ghost Pepper sauce. She said, “I love it! They’ve roasted the spices giving it a lovely smokiness. I’d use it in anything savoury.” She warned though that for anyone not used to spice, “it’ll blow your head off”. So know your customer.

With so many sauces on the market, how do I choose?

If you prefer to buy local and British, look for award-winners. Michael Price, owner of Prices Spices in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, won two Great Taste Award stars for his Haitian Sensation sauce. Intriguingly, he also offers a zeroheat version suitable for kids called Junior Sensation. Michael advises, “The best sauces are versatile and make the most of the flavour profile of the particular chilli used. They balance sweet and savoury.” We’d add: “and have long finish, complexity and freshness.”

Any other tips?

Look for condiments offering more than just heat. Available at Booth’s, Pico’s new Punjabi Ketchup recreates the flavour of butter chicken at the curry house. We tasted the new Tamarind Ketchup from The Woolf’s Kitchen with salmon and loved it. In the same Thai-inspired range, there’s a Jalapeno & Lime salsa and a Hot & Sour sauce. Look for more-ishness even if it’s down to monosodium glutamate as in LGM crispy chilli oil. In spicy oils, texture from chopped peanuts, crispy chillies or black beans helps but monitor shelf life.

My customers won’t touch sauces containing sugar, not even date syrup. Any suggestions?

Launched in October, Hunter and Gather’s new and versatile Unsweetened Spicy Chipotle Ketchup impresses with its clean yet spicy notes and natural sweetness from organic tomatoes.

Any more healthy ideas?

Planet Organic’s buying director, Al Overton, recommends the “extrazingy fermented sauces from London Fermentary, especially the Jalapeno with garlic, the red Smoky Chilli and the fruity Yellow Mellow. All contain gut-friendly lactic acid cultures. “Gran Luchito’s deeply authentic Mexican Chipotle Chilli Paste is endlessly popular. Biona’s less well known Coconut Aminos Sauce with Sweet Chilli is becoming so – it’s a fabulously umami alternative to soya sauce, all spiciness and saltiness.”

How can indies make the most of the trend?

    • Foodies can’t resist an extra chilli sauce for the larder. So tempt them.
    • Look for versatile products with recipe suggestions.
    • An indication of heat level on the pack is helpful.
    • Colourfully packaged sauces make great gifts.
    • Shop the world. Your customers want to experiment.

Will chilli sauces continue to be hot, hot, hot?

And how! The ideal product from a marketing man’s point of view is more-ish and addictive. Until we can party again like it’s 2019, we’ll seek our kicks in a bottle.

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