There used to be only ketchup, and then there was Sriracha and everything changed. (Well, bottled salsa has to figure somewhere in there, but let that hang out in the fridge for now.)
Sriracha was the astonishing thing you discovered, if you were a white kid like me, at the first pho place you ever went to—you realized there was a whole culture of things you did not know about, sauces in bottles that everybody else grabbed, herbs you had no clue what to do with, pale fleshy mung bean sprouts, and slurping.
The green-capped Rooster bottle was an emblem of how wide the food world is, how wonderful and endlessly delightful, and how shriveled a solely Eurocentric one is. (I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, my fellow pale brothers and sisters, even though—obviously—things like liverwurst and meat pies and ketchup, the foods our ancestors forged, are wonderful, but not Sriracha-level wonderful.)
Lately some very enterprising food companies have thought of combining ketchup and Sriracha. That simplifies things a bit, or maybe grossly—small, let’s call them artisanal, companies have been making Sriracha ketchup for a while; one has even called it “Srirachup,” which makes a very American kind of sense, neologistically. An Australian company makes a chile ketchup that, I admit, is too spicy for me. My husband, Perry, cut it with some regular Heinz and we still haven’t eaten it all—it still rattles around on the fridge door, an aural reminder of my limits.
Last year the Hong Kong sauce company Lee Kum Kee came out with Sriracha Chili Ketchup, which we have already lost the cap to (we had to cover it with a wadded piece of plastic wrap) . A couple days ago I got a sample bottle of Heinz Sriracha Tomato Ketchup (“New!”), which the label says is “Blended with Sriracha Flavor.”
The Heinz appeared at my desk in a coffin-hinged presentation box, all black-velvet foam inside with cutouts for the bottle, an absurd spoon, and a USB flash drive that I will never look at. The box says “Heinz Ketchup Just Turned Up the Heat,” and it looks impressive, but you pop the bottle out of its velvet niche and all you’ve got is a rather small, unimpressive-looking bottle.
In a bottle-to-bottle duel (an absurd idea, except that I can imagine Alton Brown or Guy Fieri hosting something like this on the Food Network, possibly in tandem), the Lee Kum Kee would win, even with the handicap of a missing screw top. It captures Sriracha essence—fermentation haunts the chile blast, which is more of a ripe, round burn at the back of your mouth—and the ketchup is more like a facilitator, a framework of intention.
The Heinz, well, it’s a mess, a smear of garish ketchupy sweetness like red lipstick applied by a bored 3-year-old time-outed to her room. Nobody could make the argument that there’s Sriracha here, only a defeated throb of heat in the cracks where the ketchup didn’t stick. A french fry swabbed in this would taste OK, but only because a french fry swabbed in any edible medium tastes OK. Do not buy this.
Buy the Lee Kum Kee one and don’t lose the cap, or buy a bottle of some artisanal one and scrape the price sticker off before you get home and your husband notices how much you spent, because that conversation can get ridiculous.
Photos by Chris Rochelle