A jar of Ớt Tương Triều Phát, the iconic chile sauce, lives on nearly every table in Vietnam, especially in the country’s south. This hot sauce is not all brute force. It’s a delicate sauce, one that simmers rather than boils, equipped with a slow-burning heat that rumbles to a fervent coda on the back of the tongue. Vietnamese food, with its cilantro, galangal, and mint, requires a sauce with backbone that won’t railroad less bullish flavors. In this regard, Ớt Tương Triều Phát is an exercise in precision, subtlety, and restraint.
My own relationship with the famed hot stuff began in 2016, when I landed in Hội An, where the banh mi sandwich came to prominence in the 1950s. Seated at a banquet table during an interactive food tour, I spied a bounty of cylindrical bottles adorned with lemon yellow labels, black caps, green print, and images of two red chile peppers, front and center. The bottles extended as far as my eye could see. My tour guide, Neville Dean — who started his company the Original Taste of Hội An with his wife, Colleen, roughly a decade ago — told us to open the sauce. An assault of umami, heat, and a surprising earthiness followed. Suspended in a vibrant red oil, the chunky sauce emerges as if from a molten pile of peppers. It required my attention, but didn’t burn my face off in the process. Give it a stir as a last-minute emulsifier and spoon it on. I ate it, first, on tooth-shatteringly crispy Vietnamese spring rolls. Sublime.
Unlike the Thai Sriracha, with which Americans are now more than familiar, Ớt Tương Triều Phát is neither smooth nor particularly acidic. It more closely resembles a jam than a sauce in consistency, and that texture is part of its appeal. Made by the same family for generations, Hội An chile sauce has a firm hold in Vietnam, particularly in Hội An. The sauce is the provenance of Tran Van Can, otherwise known as “Ms. Van.” She follows a 150-year-old recipe passed down through her Chinese expatriate family. “My grandmother used to make chutney and satay… to give to relatives to eat,” Ms. Van says. “Many people asked to buy it, and she started to sell from there. She made chutneys from fresh chile peppers, carefully cooked to form a spicy, aromatic spice, which makes everyone remember and taste it forever.”
The inherited sauce involves elephant tusk chiles — Ms. Van refers to them as “ớt chìa vôi,” or “peppers with lime” — a large pot, and time; the process takes three days. Ms. Van watches her chiles vigilantly, stirring them into submission. “All chile sauce processing is done manually,” she says. “Is our chile [sauce] art? I think the raw material of the chile is also important.” In Southeast Asia, elephant tusk chiles are also known as elephant trunk, or cow horn, chiles, owing to their shape. Part of the capsicum annum species, these peppers originally hailed from India and Central and South America. After selecting her fresh chiles, Ms. Van removes the stalks and seeds, grinds the chiles, and stir-fries them. Batches are produced every two days and are all made entirely by hand.
“You wouldn’t eat them raw on their own,” says Siem Reap-based food and travel writer Lara Dunston of the peppers. “But cook them up and they’re medium-to-hot, depending on your tolerance. They’re a little sweet and fruity, but simmer them over a long period of time, as Ms. Van does, and the fruitiness and sweetness is more pronounced, as is the heat.”
Ms. Van uses chiles that are grown in the foothills in Đại Lộc and Điện Bàn — both areas close to Hội An. “When I directly saute a pan of [chiles], I personally carry out and control each stage,” she says. The sauce, she notes, is a closely guarded blend of “undamaged chile, garlic, sugar, salt, sesame, peanuts, and vegetable oil.” Like any good artisanal product, Ớt Tương Triều Phát is not uniform. The contents of some bottles are crimson, others cherry red. Depending on the time of year of the pepper harvest, the specific blend, and the preservation involved (Ms. Van often salts her peppers to preserve them, since the harvest season is finite), the color and roundness of flavor may vary. But the quality remains constant.
Chile sauce runs deep in Hội An. Tran T. Duc, chef and owner of the local Hội An restaurants Mango Mango and Mai Fish, makes his own version of Ms. Van’s chile sauce. “Ms. Van, and others, are making their own chile sauces with different measurements of core ingredients,” he says. “Some with more sugar or salt, to keep [the chile lasting] longer on shelves. We have our limit, as we make and use ours fresh weekly.” Ms. Van’s sauce, which exists in multiple permutations around Hội An, settles into the bones of this town “because it is made entirely with ingredients from the area,” Duc says. The sauce reflects Hội An’s “rich soil,” which amplifies the power of the ingredients.
And what does one eat with Ớt Tương Triều Phát? Dunston swears by cao lau noodles, a Hội An dish made with rice noodles, pork, bean sprouts, and herbs. Duc puts chile sauce on cao lau and more. “We use it from [the beginning] of the meal as a chile and soy sauce mix and dip crispy rice cracker [in it]. We use chile
sauce in our salad dressing, as well as one of the ingredients in the seasoning of pork belly in our cao lau,” he says. “Cao lau is a local, special dish. Locals use this chile sauce as an extra condiment, as we can eat really spicy and we can add it to the dish we are eating.”
The delicate banh bao banh vac, or white rose dumpling, also a regional specialty, is, despite its careful appearance, also muscular enough to stand up to that powerful, sinus-clearing sauce, thanks, in part, to a garnish of crisped garlic. Ms. Van has her own preferences. “You can combine it directly with beef rolls, bread, chicken rice, curry, hotpot, beefsteak…” she says. “The taste of Triều Phát chile sauce, in my opinion, is spicy, but not pungent. Aromatic. A little salty. Enough to be used as a sauce, or to [be eaten] directly.”
Back in the United States, I reserved my own hot sauce — one measly bottle was all my luggage could accommodate — for special occasions. In the age of the Internet, it seemed impossible that there could be something I had tasted abroad that I couldn’t source back home, but, the truth was — and is — that Hội An’s magic sauce cannot be shipped. As my supply dwindled, I organized a fanatic search. My travel companion gifted me a small helping of her own coveted store for my wedding, but that went in short order. Eventually, I reached out to Neville over email. Could he send me a bottle? I’d happily pay for shipping.
The answer, sadly, was no.
“Just the saddest news,” Neville reported back, when I asked him if he could get me more sauce. “For some reason, the Vietnamese postal service won’t allow postage of this sauce (they inspect all packages sent and received). Also, being a small producer, Ms. Van has limited opportunity for export.” With no desire to change her modus operandi, Ms. Van was stuck doing what she and her family had always done: Producing a one-of-a-kind sauce for people in Vietnam, irrespective of global demand.
“Manufacturing in the United States is also our dream,” Ms. Van adds. “But for now, we are just a small, traditional family craft.” Ms. Van maintains autonomy over her chile sauce, and widening the operation would mean that she would not be overseeing every single batch. That’s a trade-off she seems unwilling to make. Then again, Ms. Van appeared, from my vantage point, to have all the local business she needed. At restaurant after restaurant, bottles of her sauce are I tucked into caddies, abandoned on wayward tables, still pulsing with life. For Neville Dean, my inability to secure even a single drop of that sauce once I landed back Stateside was just motivation to soldier on.
“Now you have a reason to return to this wonderful place,” he wrote.
Hannah Selinger is a freelance food, travel, and lifestyle writer based in East Hampton, New York. Terence Carter is an editorial and commercial photographer Based in South-East Asia and with a love of photographing people, places and plates of food.
Fact-checked by Claire Bryant