Every morning, food historian Dave DeWitt drinks a Virgin Mary, allowing him to sample as many of the hundreds of hot sauces he has on hand as possible. The author of books like The Hot Sauce Bible and The Chile Pepper Encyclopedia also keeps an emergency pepper on hand at all times in case he ever runs out. Naturally, when we wanted to find out more about the history of our favorite food-challenge fodder, we gave “The Pope of Peppers” a call.
Given how broad the label of “hot sauce” and the appeal of spicy foods are, the history of hot sauce is predictably hard to sum up. But there are a few major milestones, starting when the chili pepper was first domesticated and selectively bred for the ideal level of spice, and continuing through today’s ever-escalating quest for the hottest pepper in the world. In between, we’ve seen hot sauce evolve from little more than a paste of chiles and water to one of the most mind-blowingly diverse condiments on the planet.
We talked to DeWitt about how we got from Aztec Mexico to contemporary supermarkets, where it’s as easy to find sriracha as a pint of Haagen-Dazs. Here is an illustrated history of how hot sauce took over the world.
Illustrations by Max Schieble.
Phase 1: Peppers and the H20 Effect
You can’t have hot sauce without chile peppers, so it’s no surprise that the condiment began in the only region in the world where hot peppers grow in the wild, Central America. Ironically, the very trait humans value in chile peppers originally evolved to prevent mammals from consuming them: capsaicin, the compound we can taste but birds can’t, allowing them to eat peppers freely and distribute them in the form of, uh, natural fertilizer.
But that didn’t deter humans for long. Somewhere between Mexico and Bolivia, approximately 2,000 years ago, someone domesticated the chile, selectively bred it for larger, more substantial pods, and ground it into a paste with water and possibly herbs, which was then consumed with simple tortillas. “Hot sauce is fairly ancient,” DeWitt explains, “but it’s also fairly obvious that if you have chile peppers and you are experimenting with them, the first thing you’re gonna do is add water to them.”
Chromatographs of bowls, cups, and other utensils also show that chile peppers were incorporated into early chocolate drinks. Not exactly hot sauce, but it goes to show spicy chocolate isn’t just a Williamsburg thing.
Phase 2: Cue the Conquistadors
By the time Spanish conquerors arrived in the 16th century, agriculture had grown sophisticated enough to develop several distinct strains of chile pepper—records indicate that they found anchos, jalapeños, and even smoked chipotles at the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan—while hot sauce preparation remained extremely simple. “The other ingredients that are now in hot sauces, like any kind of oil, [native Central Americans] didn’t have,” DeWitt says. “Onions, they didn’t have. Any kind of other hot sauce and spices were all brought by the Europeans when they invaded, conquered, and eventually settled Latin America.”
For hot sauce to develop into the insanely varied, almost universal substance it is today, the Spanish would take the chile pepper back home with them. After all, one of the main things European explorers were looking for on their world travels was spices, and the chile pepper’s advantage over the likes of black pepper was obvious: hotter, cheaper, and easy to grow even outside its native climate. It quickly spread across Europe. And the Caribbean. And the United States. And Africa. And Asia.
Phase 3: Hot Sauce Goes Global
In the 500 years since the chile pepper went international, it has formed the base for a mind-bending variety of sauces. Today, DeWitt describes walking into an average grocery store in Malaysia and finding three entire aisles for hot sauce alone. Not bad for a product that isn’t even native to the region.
A brief rundown of global hot sauces underlines the chile pepper’s versatility: In the Caribbean, extremely hot peppers like scotch bonnets and habaneros are cut with fruit and vegetables; in the American South and Southwest, medium-hot peppers like cayennes are enhanced with vinegar; in Africa, peri peri (Swahili for “pepper pepper”) is wildly popular; in Asia, condiments like sambal and galangal combine smaller Thai chilis with ginger, fish sauce, and other ingredients for a more complex final product.
Pockets of resistance remain. Costa Rica, oddly enough, leaves hot sauce almost completely out of its national cuisine, despite its location in the chile pepper’s region of origin. But in a few hundred years, the condiment has become a near-constant across the globe, all while remaining diverse enough to provide material for an entire book on all the sauces out there. That doesn’t mean, of course, some sauces haven’t become more dominant than others.
Phase 4: The Rise of Big Hot Sauce
In terms of its makeup, Tabasco sauce isn’t any different from your average, Louisiana-style concoction; to this day, the company employs the same simple formula of chiles, vinegar, and salt used since the company’s founding in the 19th century. But while founder Edmund McIlhenny didn’t invent the sauce, he did come up with a way to sell it that guaranteed market dominance.
Made from chiles grown on Avery Island (though many are now grown in Colombia and Costa Rica, then shipped to Avery Island for processing), Tabasco rose to prominence not through direct sales to customers, but through restaurants and hotels. “Food service is where they really became fully dominant,” DeWitt says. “They’ve put it in every single restaurant they could possibly put it into,” and thereby turned Tabasco into the go-to hot sauce for millions of Americans who first encountered it on their local diner tabletop.
Nearly 200 years after Tabasco developed the formula, another, very different hot sauce with a cultish following would follow a similar pathway to success. Before Huy Fong Foods—along with its rooster logo and signature, green-capped bottles—sriracha wasn’t widely available or consumed in the United States. Made with large peppers like jalapeños or serranos—Huy Fong’s exact formula remains a secret—the sauce is cheaper to produce than Tabasco and easier to use than traditional Asian chili sauces, generally distributed by spoon rather than squeeze bottle. This made it ideal for restaurants, which began placing bottles of Huy Fong tableside since the company began production in 1980.
Phase 5: Chasing the Spice
While Tabasco and major competitors like Huy Fong, Cholula, and Frank’s Red Hot continue to dominate the market, the last ten to 15 years have seen a period of accelerated experimentation in hot sauce—particularly on the extreme end of the spectrum, where an arms race has given rise to super-hot chili pepper breeds like Ed Currie’s Carolina Reaper, and sauces with names like Insanity and Death (not to mention enabled some of our own stunts).
For the past 20 years, DeWitt has helped organize the Scovie Awards, an annual competition for gourmet spicy foods that takes place at the National Fiery Foods & Barbecue Show. Every year, about 50 products square off in the “XXX Hot” category, for which judges (often people born with fewer capsaicin receptors than average) have to sign legal disclaimers before participating. But gourmet hot sauces have also proliferated across the board; DeWitt is partial to Trinidad Hot Pepper Sauce, a brand made using French thyme, which isn’t thyme at all, but rather a succulent native to the island.
None of these smaller brands are threatening of knocking Tabasco or Huy Fong from their perch at the top. But they do signal that hot sauce continues to evolve at a rapid pace after spreading across the globe; in fact, it never stopped. “All these types of sauce have been in existence,” DeWitt says. “It’s just that there’s more of them now.”