The Hot Sauce Field Guide
Tabasco is just the beginning. Here are 23 spicy condiments from around the world you need to try.
If you live in the U.S., chances are that when you hear the words “hot sauce,” you think of a thin, vinegar-y red liquid. It usually comes in a little glass bottle that you shake violently until the plate of eggs directly underneath it is sufficiently doused. If you’re fancy, maybe you’ve graduated to a green sauce (made with less mature green chiles, often with a sharper, vegetal flavor and less sweetness), or Huy Fong Sriracha (affectionately known as “rooster sauce”). Still, most of the hot sauces with which we are familiar—Cholula, Crystal, El Yucateco, Frank’s Red Hot, Melinda’s, Tabasco, Tapatio, Texas Pete, Trappey’s and Valentina... did I miss anything?—arose from the same Louisiana-style formula: vinegar + chiles + salt, pureed, then possibly aged/fermented.
To be fair, it’s a great formula: acidity, heat, plus a dash of sodium chloride—and maybe just a little bit of funk—are often all a dish needs to go from dull to delightful. People around the world have known this for ages, and combining chile peppers (the fruit of plants in the genus Capsicum), with a salty element and some sort of acid is a common way to spice things up. But it is by no means the only way. There are countless variations of hot sauce—be it consistency, species of pepper used (some sauces specify a particular pepper, some use generic red chiles, often cayenne), treatment of the peppers (ground, dried, fresh, roasted, fermented), and the use of other herbs and spices.
Here are 23 notable fiery condiments from around the world, sorted by the country or region with which each is most closely associated.
Harissa (North Africa)
Harissa is a thick, flavorful paste made from ground dried chiles like Tunisian Baklouti (about 1,000 to 5,500 Scoville Heat Units, similar to a jalapeño) and serrano, olive oil, and various herbs and spices, most commonly coriander, cumin, caraway, garlic and/or lemon juice. It is very closely linked with Tunisia, but it is also popular in Morocco, Liby, and Algeria, where it is used as a condiment in almost every meal and as a base for cooking. You can buy it jarred or canned in stores, but it’s simple to make at home. Here's how Gary Danko makes his.
Shatta is also on the thicker side, though it often has a tomato and contains parsley in addition to red chiles and olive oil. It’s frequently served with Egypt’s national dish koshari, a street food made with lentils, macaroni and rice. Use it like you would any other hot sauce, or stir it into soups and sauces for some added heat and flavor.
Awaze recipes can vary, but they generally feature berbere spice (a blend of fenugreek, ground ginger, cardamom, ground red chiles like cayenne and various other spices) and Tej (a sweet, honey wine that is consumed across Ethiopia and Eritrea) mixed with other flavorings like garlic and black pepper. Oil can be added for a richer consistency, and it is common to substitute other alcohols like whiskey, white wine and sherry for the Tej. It’s often used as a condiment or marinade; chef Hiyaw Gebreyohannes uses it as a base for his Ethiopian Spiced Lamb Stew.
Made with oil (fish or vegetable), chiles, ginger, and ground dried fish or shrimp, this fiery paste is packed with both heat and umami. It comes in various colors, depending on the peppers used, but the most common is black, made with dried cayenne peppers. Ghanaians use it as a condiment for dishes like kenkey (a sourdough corn flour dumpling that’s steamed in a banana leaf or corn husk) or as a savory addition to stews and sauces.
Muhammara originates from Syria, though it's also common in Turkey, where it is known as acuka. It’s based on fresh or dried Aleppo peppers (about 10,000 Scoville Heat Units, somewhere between chipotles and chiles de árbol), walnuts, olive oil and breadcrumbs, and it can also include cumin, pomegranate molasses and lemon juice. Muhammara can be used as a condiment, but it is more frequently eaten as a dip with bread. This recipe subs in roasted red peppers for dried Aleppos, for a brighter, tangier variation, perfect for dipping toasted pita or veggies.
Originally from Yemen, but also closely linked to Israeli cuisine, this sauce (zhug in Yemen, schug in Hebrew) is typically made with olive oil, cumin, garlic, cilantro, and either red or green hot chiles. Because the peppers are fresh, zhug has a bright, clean taste that livens up falafel, eggs, and pretty much anything else you feel like eating. Eli Sussman makes his version slightly sweet, with a touch of honey.
Chile Oil (China)
Chile oil is one of the most common ingredients in Chinese cuisine and is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: oil infused with hot, red chiles. It is usually made from a vegetable oil and can include other seasonings, like Sichuan peppercorns, dried garlic or paprika. It’s particularly popular in the Sichuan Province (where they often toss in some mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns, NBD) and can be used as a table condiment or an ingredient in cooked dishes.
Hot Mustard (China)
The only condiment on this list that does not actually contain chiles, hot mustard is traditionally a mix of just mustard powder and water. The water brings about a chemical reaction when combined with ground brown mustard seeds (more potent than white mustard seeds, which are used in other, milder mustards) that creates its characteristic sinus-clearing heat. Other ingredients, like oils or vinegars, can be added to soften the intensity. It’s usually served at the table and is one of the most common Chinese condiments.
This hot pepper paste has been part of daily life in Korea since the 18th century and can gets its characteristic sweet, funky flavor from sticky rice and fermented soy beans. It’s a great flavor booster for almost anything, but its thick consistency makes it a better as a base or mix-in (think fiery sauces for chicken wings or spare ribs) rather than as a finishing element.
The term “sambal” refers to a variety of different chile-based condiments, originally from Java but now popular throughout southeast Asia. The type most familiar to us in the U.S. is probably sambal oelek, which is bright red and contains fresh red chiles, salt, vinegar and sometimes a touch of sugar. It’s wetter than a paste but still has less moisture than many other hot sauces, so it’s great for adding flavor to sauces and dressings without diluting them.
The name is similar, but the genuine Thai version can be quite different from the ubiquitous “rooster sauce,” which is actually made by Huy Fong Foods in southern California. Named after the town of Si Racha where it was created in the 1930s, the original Sriracha is made from the same basic ingredients (fresh red chiles, sugar, salt, garlic and vinegar) but is usually runnier and sweeter than the version that's so popular here (and Pok Pok chef Andy Rickers actually prefers it). Both American and Thai styles are versatile and can be used in marinades, dressings and (duh) Bloody Marys.
Paprika Paste/Cream (Hungary)
Hungarians love their paprika, and paprika paste (sometimes called paprika cream) is one of the nation’s most popular condiments. It can be spicy or sweet and is generally made of only paprika (any air-dried member of the chile family ground into a powder) mixed with salt and some type of acidic element. The two most popular store-bought varieties, Erős Pista (“Strong Steven”) and Piros Arany (“Red Gold”) contain citric acid (plus stabilizers and emulsifiers). It can be used as a substitute for paprika powder in dishes like Chicken Paprikash and Beef Goulash, or it can be used as a rub on meat and fish.
Peri Peri Sauce (Portugal)
The peri peri pepper (known as piri piri in Africa) has been part of Portuguese cuisine since explorers brought it back from their voyages to the New World in the 1400s. The chile, whose heat falls somewhere between a habanero and a cayenne, traveled with them to their other colonies like Angola and Mozambique, where peri peri sauce is also popular. Nando’s, the most well-known brand, contains vinegar, lemon, onion and serrano chiles in addition to peri peris. It is also the star of one of Portugal’s iconic dishes, Piri Piri Chicken.
Louisiana-style hot sauces are thin, vinegary, a little bit salty and many times fermented for a slightly funky taste. Tabasco is the most famous example of this style, though Crystal, Trappey’s and Frank’s Red Hot also fall into this category. The acidity is perfect for cutting fatty foods like mac and cheese and lobster rolls, and they are some of the easiest hot sauces to find in stores. If you feel like making your own, check out Ian Knauer’s garlicky version.
New Mexico Red/Green Chile (USA)
New Mexicans know their spicy food, and chile is a point of state pride. They're made with New Mexico chile peppers like Anaheim, Rio Grande, Pueblo, and/or Hatch (any chiles grown in the Hatch Valley). This type of sauce differs from many of the ones on this list in that it does not typically include vinegar and often contains flour for thickening, along with some kind of meaty element like beef or chicken stock. Andrew Zimmern’s Red Chile recipe uses bacon to add savory, smoky flavor.
Salsa Picante (Mexico)
As I mentioned above, many Mexican-style hot sauces (or salsas picantes), like Cholula, Valentina and Tapatio, are generally similar in taste, consistency and appearance to Louisiana-style sauces. While milder, chunkier salsas like pico de gallo are often eaten as dips, salsas picantes are used to accent everything from tacos to eggs.
Scotch Bonnet Pepper Sauce (Jamaica)
In the Caribbean, hot sauces are called “pepper sauces,” and the Scotch Bonnet pepper is the star of the show. It is on the hotter side, clocking in at 100,000 to 350,000 Scoville units, on par with habaneros (compare to jalapeños at 1,000 to 4,000 and cayennes at 30,000 to 50,000). In Jamaica, pepper sauces are simple, hot, zippy with vinegar and made with fresh peppers. They are often made at home and accompany nearly every meal. Try this version, which gets a bit of sweetness and complexity from all-spice and dark brown sugar.
Mustard Pepper Sauce (British Virgin Islands, Trinidad)
The British Virgin Islands and Trinidad both specialize in sauces that are based on either scotch bonnets or habaneros, with a golden hue from the addition of yellow mustard. Pepper sauces here can get quite complex, involving herbs like cilantro and thyme, spices like curry, and sweet fruits like mango. Grace Parisi’s Trinidadian neighbor Dick Hosten makes his version with carrot, scallions, garlic and fresh lime juice.
Sos Ti-Malice (Haiti)
Sos (sauce) ti-malice is thick, red and also based on scotch bonnets or habaneros. It has a strong onion-y flavor, and usually also includes, shallots, tomato (or tomato paste), garlic, and slices of green and/or red bell pepper. It’s named for Ti-Malice, a trickster from Haitian folklore who tried to deter his friend from stealing food by dousing it with a fiery hot sauce. Unfortunately, the sauce was delicious and his plan backfired; now Haitians enjoy it on dishes like Griot (fried pork) and fish.
In Peru, ají is a sauce based on the paste of ají amarillo peppers, which have heat levels similar to cayennes (around 30,000 to 50,000 Scoville Heat Units). It gets its pale green color from fresh jalapeños and cilantro, and usually contains lime juice along with a creamy element like mayonnaise or sour cream. Serve it as a dipping sauce or with Peruvian classics like Pollo à la Brasa or Lomo Saltado.
Ají (Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Chile)
While ají is most closely associated with Peru, it can also refer to a thin, acidic green sauce found in other areas of South America, most notably Ecuador (where it’s known as ají criollo), Colombia and Bolivia. This type of ají generally consists of hot green peppers (such as ajís, jalapeños or serranos), cilantro, garlic lime juice and/or vinegar. It's not completely smooth and looks similar to a chimichurri sauce. This one from chef Maricel Presilla is great for bringing heat, acid and brightness to rich foods.
Somewhere between a pico de gallo and an ají criollo is Chilean pebre. It’s a mix of cilantro, tomatoes, onions, ají chiles, vinegar and garlic that is often served with bread at the start of a Chilean meal.
Molho de pimento (Brazil)
This bright red sauce is made from the small malagueta pepper, which is one of the most widely used peppers in Brazil. At 60,000 to 100,000 Scoville heat units, its spiciness is comparable to that of Thai Bird’s Eye Chiles. In addition to malaguetas, Molho de pimento usually contains green bell peppers, onions, vinegar and often olive oil. Serve it alongside Brazil’s national dish, Feijoada.