Hot sauce is everywhere nowadays. From Hot sauce festivals to TV shows to having “hot sauce in your bag swag” (Thank you, Beyoncé), it’s surpassed mere condiment status and has become a genre of the zeitgeist. But why is hot sauce so popular, and how did we get here? The history of hot sauce is fascinating and spans decades, continents, and cultures and this reflection only scratches the surface.
Hot Sauce History Origins
Who invented hot sauce, you ask? Unsurprisingly, the history of hot sauce traces back to the only place where chillies naturally occur—Central America. More specifically— the Aztecs. Chilli is believed to be one of the earliest plants cultivated by humans, and archaeologists have found evidence of its use by the Aztecs as far back as 7000 BC. The first hot sauce in the world, most likely, consisted of ground-up chillies mixed with water and herbs. The Aztecs used it to enhance the flavour of their food, for medicinal purposes, to pay taxes, to give tributes, and even as a weapon or punishment. So, if you’ve wondered whether hot sauce ever killed anyone, the answer may be yes.
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Fast forward a good few years, and Columbus embarks on his infamous journey to find India. As per the request of the Spanish King and Queen, he was tasked with finding pepper (the black, grindable kind native to India). However, Columbus didn’t dock in India, and upon arrival in America, he was introduced to an intense, spicy fruit he called pepper. So, not only was he partly responsible for distributing chili peppers across Europe, but he also named them.
However, as Europeans were exposed to new foods and flavours, so were the native people. Fresh ingredients like onions and garlic became vital components in hot sauce reminiscent of today’s recipes (like our “Mango Unchained sauce”). Despite these advantages, the spice trade was controversial and brutal. The Habanero pepper, the heat source in our “Pine in My Arse” sauce, is considered a symbol of independence and self-determination by the Mayans who fought against complete Spanish rule.
After it arrived in Europe, Hungary was one of the first countries to customize chili peppers. At the time, the Turks controlled Hungary, which was introduced to peppers by Arab and Indian traders. Hungarians loved the flavour but not the heat, so they removed the seeds. They then dried the pepper and ground it into a fine powder called paprika – a key ingredient in our “Candied Menace“. To this day, Hungary is the only country in the world with the specific micro-climate needed to grow paprika peppers of the highest quality.
That said, the Hungarians weren’t the only country to embrace and regionalize spice, and today every culture in the world has its type and style of hot sauce. For instance, Peri-Peri, made from the African Bird’s Eye Chilli, originates from Mozambique. The sauce is famous in Southern African cuisine.
Hot sauce is so regionally particular that there are even spicy spelling discrepancies within the English language. Chili, Chilli, or Chile are all acceptable forms of the word, depending on where you are. “Chili,” the American spelling, derives from the dish “Carne con chili” (meat with chili) now commonly referred to as “chili con carne” or just— “chili”.
Hot sauce products were brought to market in 1807. According to newspaper ads of the time, a sauce called “cayenne sauce” was bottled and sold in Massachusetts, suggesting it might just be the oldest hot sauce in America. In the mid-1800s, a New York City company called J McCollik and Company produced a bird pepper sauce, probably not unlike what we know as bird’s eye chilli today.
But the real pioneer of the hot sauce industry was Edmund McILhenny, inventor of Tabasco sauce. McILhenny grew his Tabasco peppers in Louisiana and sold his sauce at $1 a bottle. The sauce became a cultural phenomenon gaining its popularity in restaurants and hotels as a staple condiment.
In addition to the Tabasco craze, it was around this time that hot sauce became prevalent in home cooking. Hot sauce recipes first emerged in cookbooks around 1872. A recipe book called Mrs Hill’s Cookbook, by Annabella Hill contained a spicy BBQ sauce recipe with red pepper and cayenne and a homemade curry powder.
Moreover, leading up to the 1900s, several hot sauce companies emerged. These companies included Bergman’s Diablo Pepper Sauce, which popularized the 5-inch-tall bottles with narrow necks still used today.
The Introduction of Scoville
By 1912, hot sauce was so widespread that someone had to develop a system to keep track of spice levels. So, if you’ve ever wondered how they measure heat? The answer is Scoville. Wilbur Scoville invented the scale while in search of a heat-producing ointment. It was tested according to human taste buds, and the idea was to dilute a spicy extract with water until it no longer tastes spicy. Every degree of dilution translates to a Scoville heat unit (SHU). For instance, 5000 cups of water dilute 1 cup of Tabasco sauce to the point of not being spicy.
Hot sauce remedies have been around just as long as hot sauce itself. One of the oldest ways to cool down your mouth was a swig of alcohol. Guess we’re not that different from our forefathers, after all.
Standing the Test of Time
Hot sauce’s prolific history begs a few questions: is hot sauce detrimental to your health? Beneficial? And why do we love it as much as we do?
Thankfully, chilli is great for your health. Despite capsaicin (the active component in chilli) technically being a deterrent, humans love it, and it loves us right back. Hot sauce is considered an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. It is known to improve your metabolism and has been active in cold, sinus, and flu remedies for hundreds of years.
Good to know that thousands of years of consumption come with benefits beyond flavour enhancement.
Loving hot sauce is deeply rooted in cultural norms and centuries of complicated history, but it may also be about personality type. Research has shown that people with higher risk-seeking tendencies are more likely to enjoy spicy food. So, if you love roller-coasters or surfing, you’re more likely to douse your fries in hot sauce than ketchup.
Today, consumers can find hot sauce in every part of the globe, and the average grocery store may have multiple aisles dedicated to the condiment. Studies have shown that Americans buy over 50 million bottles of hot sauce a year. The global hot sauce market was worth USD 2.54 billion in 2020. It’s expected to reach USD 4.8 billion by 2028. Quite the success story for the humble (or feisty) chilli pepper that began native to only one region. Need the Heat is proud to be a part of its story.