You are probably familiar with the limitations of chilli sauces: the dominant Louisiana style liquid sauces can only be added to certain dishes because of their assertive tartness, while chunky Asian style sauces blend well but correspondingly offer little more than spiciness. That was how we felt about chilli sauces at least, until our neighbors gave us a basket of their homegrown habaneros. We chopped up the peppers and made a Vietnamese chilli sauce (tương ớt) with garlic, salt, apple cider vinegar and bourbon barrel aged maple syrup (this was autumn in Michigan, after all.)
Wow! What a revelation! The sauce is intense in both spiciness and peppery flavors; a little bit of this sauce goes a long way. When added to a dish, you notice the heat first, of course – habaneros are the second hottest pepper variety in the world. Then you realize you’re tasting the pepper, too. Its citrusy and floral aromas accent the edges and fill up the spaces left open by the host dish.
Our habaneros tương ớt lurks prominently in the background, like those extra thoughtful details that make a good book/movie/song great. It made a timid chilli eater admit that yes, a little bit of pain makes every (gustatory) pleasure sweeter. It made a friend add tương ớt to everything she ate until she sweated habaneros, and still she couldn’t get enough. And it inspired us to experiment and look into other pepper varieties out there.
Habaneros tương ớt is only the beginning!