Hoi An chilli sauce or Hội An tương ớt is an indispensable condiment in Central Vietnam‘s UNESCO World Heritage listed town, used on Hoi An specialties, from the charming port’s legendary cao lau noodles to its famous banh mi Vietnamese sandwich.
Hoi An Chilli Sauce – The Illustrious Hoi An Tuong Ot Trieu Phat
Found amongst the ubiquitous condiments in the caddies on the plastic and stainless steel tables of Hoi An’s street food vendors, market stalls and modest local eateries is the red-capped jar for which the spice-loving central Vietnam town is renowned – Hoi An chilli sauce or Hoi An Tuong Ot.
Spooned over Hoi An’s cao lầu noodles or spread across the town’s famous Vietnamese sandwich, banh mi, the chilli sauce attests to the culinary force that is the compact UNESCO World Heritage listed town of Hoi An, our home for three months before we moved to Siem Reap three years ago.
Sometimes the colour takes the form of a mailbox-red sauce. At other times it resembles a thick claret-coloured chutney. Its texture can range from anything from a light relish to a chunky chilli jam. Whatever its form, it always contains the chilli pepper seeds that give the sauce its kick.
Vietnamese travel from far and wide specifically to buy Hoi An chilli sauce direct from the source, and few Vietnamese holidaymakers would think of visiting Hoi An without taking a few jars home.
The brand that they’ll most likely be packing in their bag is the most celebrated Hoi An chilli sauce, Ớt Tương Triều Phát. A rust-red colour, with the consistency of a medium-thick satay sauce, Ớt Tương Triều Phát is protected by a layer of deep red oil.
Recognisable by the ‘5’ above two crossed red chilli peppers on a yellow label, Ớt Tương Triều Phát is handmade weekly, over several days, by fifth-generation producer Tran Van Can. Ms Van follows a centuries-old recipe brought to Hoi An some 150 years ago by her Chinese family when the town was still a busy trading port.
I met Ms Van back in early 2013 when I chatted to her in the courtyard of her centuries-old wooden house, as I watched her make her famous Hoi An chilli sauce for a story I was writing for now defunct Feast magazine.
I knew of her famous Hoi An chilli sauce, which I had seen sold in the market, but I discovered her making the sauce purely by chance when I found myself in her courtyard in search of the landlord after seeing a ‘For Rent’ sign outside the house. At that time, we were considering a permanent move to Hoi An.
Spotting her stirring the shiny red ‘elephant tusk’ chillies in a massive cauldron of a pot, I quickly made the connection, asked her if Terence and I could return another day to interview her and take photographs, and dashed home to send an email to my editor.
Two weeks later, Ms Van was telling me the history of Hoi An’s family chilli sauce – this time as she gently stirred a gigantic plastic tub of the cooling, fragrant, skinless red peppers that had been simmering all day.
Decades before, she said, the house had been the ancestral home, as well as the Korean Development company office, for over one hundred years – an import-export business her family operated, trading a variety of goods with Korea, alongside the artisanal production of their famous chilli sauce.
The business closed, now Ms Van rented the front two rooms of the historic house to vendors who sold cheap souvenirs and clothes to tourists. When we met she was hoping to rent the rest of the house to foreigners like ourselves.
What sets her Hoi An chilli sauce apart from all the others is a secret that Ms Van told me she guards closely, however, she did reveal a few of the things that she believed made her sauce special.
“I only use local chilli peppers from Đại Lộc and Điện Bàn districts,” Ms Van revealed.
“I also only buy the chilli peppers in the right season for Quang Nam province. Each year there is only one chilli season here, from March to the sixth lunar month,” she explained. So that she can produce her sauce all year she preserves the chillies in salt, claiming that they stayed ‘fresh’ for 4-5 months.
At one point during our interview her mobile rang and she took the call. When she set down the phone, she announced “An order from Australia! I send my chilli sauce all over the world!” She smiled proudly, returning to her chillies.
Unfortunately, Ms Van didn’t reveal the precious secret to what makes her Hoi An chilli sauce so special, so I decided to probe some of the town’s finest chefs to see if they had an inkling.
Ms Ly, owner-chef of Hoi An’s oldest restaurant, Ms Ly Cafe, said she believes that the secret ingredient just might be ground sesame and peanuts – which is perhaps why it had reminded us of satay sauce.
Chef Mai Tran of Mai Fish, another well-regarded Hoi An restaurant, agreed but acknowledged the contribution of those sweet, red ‘elephant tusk’ chillies that grow in the hills near Hoi An.
“Best used when bright red and super-ripe, the chillies have a perfect balance of sweetness and spiciness,” she told us. “The trick is to simmer them for a long time over low heat to get the perfect consistency – not too runny and not too thick.”
And that was precisely what I had observed Ms Van doing. We guessed that the secret to Ms Van’s Hoi An chilli sauce was a combination of those factors. Whatever it was, we’d take Ms Van’s Ớt Tương Triều Phát – or any Hoi An chilli sauce – over a bottle of Sriracha any day.
When Terence whipped up one of my favourite dishes today, Hoi An’s famous cao lau noodles, using another batch of char siu barbecue pork he made, I have to confess that I was just as excited about the thought of tasting the sauce again, as I was about savouring my favourite Southeast Asian noodles.
Ớt Tương Triều Phát is sold on the front porch of 41 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street, Hoi An. You’ll find many other varieties of Hoi An chilli sauce or Hoi An Tuong Ot sold fresh in plastic bags, as well as in plastic jars at the Hoi An Central Market.
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