Hot Stuff: L.A.'s Cross-Cultural Condiments

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Sket One's Sriracha-inspired fire extinguishers. | Photo: Carren Jao.

There is no more intimate or more pleasurable way to uncover the complexities of a culture than by ingesting its food. We have only to follow the trail of countless mouthwatering Instagrams, rapturous Yelp reviews, and sold-out food tours by star chefs to prove it.

As repast turns into reflection, a lifetime of meals becomes inextricably intertwined with fleeting moments in time we thought lost in the whirl of everyday life. It only takes a whiff or a taste to transport us.

In Los Angeles, there are two of these potions in existence -- mainstays in many eateries: Sriracha and Tapatio, rivals for Heinz's ketchup and French's mustard. Though wrapped in an Asian or Latino packaging, both tell an undeniably American tale.

"A study of these two sauces is really telling. There's an otherness that's attached to them both, yet they're very much a product of Los Angeles," said Steven Y. Wong, interim Executive Director of the Chinese American Museum and curator of its latest exhibition, "L.A. Heat," in honor of these two spicy condiments.

The exhibition features a collection of thirty works from thirty artists that all revolve around the two condiments. The result? An engaging mix of styles and perspectives that together says a lot about the people of Los Angeles.

Slick, "Weapons of Mask Destruction"
Slick, "Weapons of Mask Destruction."
Daniel Gonzalez
Daniel Gonzalez.

There were some pieces that were just simply fun. Graffiti artist Sket One created a line-up of Sriracha-inspired fire extinguishers and even a toy. Slick turned spray paint cans into Sriracha, even created a facemask that breathed Sriracha instead of oxygen. Rather than Godzilla versus King Kong in Tokyo, David Gonzalez recast the scene in Los Angeles pitting the charro-outfitted Tapatio man against a blazing red Sriracha rooster.

Other artists took to the food itself to find inspiration. Like experimental chefs plating a beautiful dish, Trinh Mai's Tou Bay deconstructs the ingredients that make up the Vietnamese pho and encased them in sheets of resin. "I grew up with Sriracha all my life. It's an essential ingredient for pho," says Mai, "I wanted to bring my Vietnamese heritage into it."

Trinh Mai, "Tou bay"
Trinh Mai, "Tou bay."
Trinh Mai, "Tou bay"
Trinh Mai, "Tou bay."

At first, her work is simply a triptych of two warrior women defending on circular portal (it's a top view of a pho bowl, says Mai). Closer inspection reveals the patterns to be made of pho noodles, green onions, mint and basil leaves with a blot of Sriracha.

Instead of one dish, Erik Benjamins set his sights on a veritable feast by producing "Searing Red Dust (The Vanishing Huy Fong Foods Cookbook)." As its name suggests, Benjamins has created a sense of urgency to the act of cooking by compiling recipes that make use of the spice that would eventually disappear on the paper it was printed on.

Erik Benjamins, "Searing Red Dust"
Erik Benjamins, "Searing Red Dust."

Benjamins asked chefs and cooks in his network to contribute to this unusual book. Included are dishes by Randy Clemens of the Sriracha cookbook, Kuniko Yagi of Hinoko and the Bird, and Wes Avila of Guerrilla Tacos. The range of foods from Kambocha Ravioli to Chili Cashew Negro indicates the flexibility of the Sriracha sauce, but also the mutability of culture.

The artist used an alternative photographic process called Inkodye and left it unfixed, meaning the ink would slowly darken to the same shade of warm red as its background after some time exposed to light. "I wanted to give these recipes a life and a death," said Benjamins, who was brought up on Sambal Oelek spice made by Huy Fong Foods because of Indonesian-Dutch heritage.

EyeOne, "Separate/Equal"
EyeOne, "Separate/Equal."

Rather than focus on food, EyeOne, instead zoomed in on a memory. His "Separate/Equal" is an engraving of his mother sorting chilis to make salsa. It seemed logical given EyeOne's culinary preference. "I don't really eat spicy food," says the artist, who moved here from Mexico at the age of six. Nevertheless, his lack of affinity for the spices didn't stop his cultural connections from being formed.

Sandra Low has done the same with the humorous "Beansprout Uprising: Troop 626," which depicts a cute girl scout outfitted in guerilla gear, complete with Sriracha artillery and a bandana facemask.

Sandra Low, "Beansprout Uprising: Troop 626"
Sandra Low, "Beansprout Uprising: Troop 626."

There are also those that brought out the immigration stories inherent in both spices. Founded by David Tran and Jose-Luis Saavedra (of Huy Fong Foods and Tapatio Foods, respectively), the two companies share a similar arc. The spices were a visceral reminder of their cultures. Tran from Thailand and Saavedra from Guatemala. Though both men culled from their past, they also calibrated for the present turning these exotic-seeming sauce into something homegrown Angeleno.

Edith Beaucage sought to capture the courage it took to chart one's path as an immigrant in "Dragon Frederick Louis of Rimouski," a lush painting full of bold strokes and melting colors. "I'm not Asian, I'm French-Canadian, but I connected with their story of immigration. I believe that all immigrants have to have a dragon with them to undertake such a big move. They have to be courageous. These two men were that and their story had that underlying American theme of being able to do what you want in a new place."

Audrey Chan proposal for mural dedicated to David Tran
Audrey Chan proposal for mural dedicated to David Tran.

It's that necessary courage that once again arises in Audrey Chan's "Proposal for a mural dedicated to David Tran." "Never forget the Huy Fong, the crowded ship that carried an intrepid young man to a land of promise. There, the teeming masses salivated for a vermillion-hued burn he graciously delivered," is written on the painting. Behind it, a freighter floats on a red sea with Tran's portrait on the side. "The contrast between where he was in 1978 when he was as refugee of the Vietnam War and where he is now is so stark," says Chan.

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Her work highlights the long journey Tran had made to create what is now cult culinary favorite. Chan recounts that Tran's journey by the sea wasn't the easiest. On the way from Vietnam to the United States, his freighter docked in Hong Kong, where local authorities wouldn't let them disembark. The Vietnamese on the boat were then stuck on the freighter for a month, waiting and wondering what the future held for them.

Chris Christion, "Founders Table"
Chris Christion, "Founders Table."

Rather than separate a country's histories, Chris Christion sought to marry American with the immigrant by creating "Founder's Table," composed of a portraits that mixed the country's forefathers with the visages of the two spice company founders. In front of them, ships swirled across a black table by magnets, as if mimicking an ocean crossing.

Though "L.A. Heat" covered only one floor, the themes it tackles goes beyond mere condiments on the table. By bringing in the disparate voices of illustrators, gallery artists, street artists, and many others, Wong was able to expose the endless layers of culture and the unique blend of grit mingled with optimism that marks Los Angeles.

Read more about Sriracha from KCET Food:

Put Sriracha on Everything
Really, do it.

A Very Sriracha Super Bowl
If there's one thing we've learned by now, it's that sriracha makes everything taste better. Punch up the classic Super Bowl snack with it this Sunday.

Complaints Against Sriracha Factory Increase
A group of Irwindale residents went on record today as suffering from a sting in the air as part of the city's lawsuit against a hot sauce maker famed for its Thai-style Sriracha made with hot peppers.

Case Against Sriracha Plant Grows, Trial Set for November
The lawsuit against Huy Fong Foods Inc. grew with an additional claim by the city of Irwindale. Meanwhile, a judge has scheduled the jury trial for later this year.


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