Sriracha becoming as American as pizza, tacos and ... sushi

Despite rising popularity, Asian hot sauce factory bothers California neighbors who complain of burning eyes, headaches

IRWINDALE, Calif. — The controversy over the pungent, eye-watering fumes emanating from a local hot sauce factory has put this tiny town on the national map.

But a visit to this Los Angeles suburb better known for rock quarries, a speedway and an annual Renaissance festival highlights a transformation with much broader implications than a mere municipal dispute. 

Few would have imagined just 20 years ago that a facility that makes sriracha — the fiery Thai concoction of chili peppers, distilled vinegar, garlic, sugar and salt — would take up an entire city block here. The 650,000-square-foot Huy Fong Foods factory processes 100 million pounds of chili peppers a year, and about 40 truckloads of spicy peppers are delivered every day.

Sriracha? Really? In the San Gabriel Valley?

Yet immigrants have altered — and spiced up — American palates for centuries, from the French Huguenots who settled in colonial Virginia to the Italian immigrants who came through Ellis Island at the turn of the 20th century.

They come and bring their tastes and traditions, and a nation slowly awakens to new flavors.

“The U.S. has always embraced foods from other countries,” said Ron Tanner, vice president of communication at the Specialty Food Association, a nonprofit that represents 3,000 companies in the $86 billion specialty food industry. “They settle here, but they like the food of their homelands, and many of them are entrepreneurs. They often start restaurants, and it kind of expands and starts appealing to more of a mass market.”

The 650,000-square-foot Huy Fong Foods factory processes 100 million pounds of chili peppers a year, and 40 truckloads of spicy peppers are delivered every day.

Tanner observed that back in the 1950s, spaghetti and meatballs was considered exotic.

“Then, a generation later, it’s all part of the American stomach,” said Robert Lang, a professor of urban affairs at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “How exotic was something like sushi once? Now you see versions of Hispanic and Asian cooking on Applebee’s menu. This is Applebee’s, the Middle America restaurant down the street in Anytown, USA.”

Salsa sales are almost double those of ketchup. Tortillas outsell burger buns and potato chips. And burritos are as all-American as hot dogs.

Italian food tops the international/ethnic foods category, according to the Specialty Food Association, but Mexican, Chinese and other Asian, and Greek are not far behind.

Ethnic food sales — up more than 4 percent, to $8.7 billion, from 2010 to 2012 alone — are projected by market research firms to soar another 20 percent by 2017.

“From the beginning of the republic, the immigrant food experience has shaped us,” Lang said.

And naturally, food sales mirror population patterns.

Hispanics surpassed blacks as the nation’s largest minority group more than a decade ago and now number 53 million, or 17 percent of the U.S. population. But Asians were the fastest-growing group in 2012, up almost 3 percent in one year. They now total almost 19 million.

As such groups introduce cuisines from their homelands, young Americans become exposed at a young age. By the time they’re adults, what their parents called adventurous eating becomes mainstream. Sushi and hummus show up in school lunchboxes, and ethnic foods become part of the daily diet — just as pizza and bagels did decades ago.

Gastronomic melting pot

Hina Khan-Mukhtar is a Pakistani-American teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area. She incorporates chaat masala, a traditional seasoning, in all-American fare such as scrambled eggs and chicken salad. Her children have enjoyed this culinary fusion that will eventually become run of the mill for their generation.

“Over the next half century, both Asians and Hispanics will more than double their populations,” said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

“In fact, America’s child population will be minority white in less than five years," he said. "With Asian and Hispanic households moving to all parts of the country, foods that were once thought of as exotic and confined to the coasts are now available everywhere.”

And that’s why sriracha, a red paste in a big clear plastic bottle, can now be seen on every table in most Asian restaurants. Indeed, that is why the controversy here has little to do with ethnic tensions — and a lot more to do with allegations of pollution.

The company was sued by the city for public nuisance after residents complained of burning eyes, scratchy throats and headaches. Residential neighborhoods surround the imposing Huy Fong facility.

Joanna Pena, 33, said she’s been suffering from headaches and a burning in her throat, especially during afternoon hours, when the chili peppers are roasted. Despite a carbon-based filtration system, the fumes sting eyes and throats, especially when the wind blows in the direction of her home, almost directly across the street from the factory.

“It makes us gag,” said Pena, who has lived here 10 years. “We keep the windows closed.”

Her three children, ages 13, 12 and 8, don’t use the swing set in the front yard much these days because “they don’t like to play outside anymore,” she said. “They stay inside all the time.”

Pena understands why hot sauce manufacturing would have this effect.

“I kill myself when I make my own salsa,” she said. "I don’t wish them bad.”

She just wants the company to do more to stop the burning fumes from reaching her home.

Sriracha sales continue to multiply.
Nick Ut/AP Images

“We’ve suggested that they install a temporary fix while they’re crushing their chilies,” said City Attorney Fred Galante.

“I know they’ve installed some additional filters, but complaints are still coming in,” he said. “Our goal isn’t to shut them down but to stop the odors. There are people who have children who suffer from asthma.”

He said about 30 complaints have come in from residents within a 1-mile radius of the plant.

The city’s first attempt to obtain a temporary restraining order failed, but another court hearing is set for Friday.

In a statement, the company said it “has taken recent steps to enhance its filtration system and is continuing to be proactive and monitor the situation.”

At the Liquor Junior Mart directly across the street from the factory entrance, owners Bob Whang and his wife, Young Ja Whang, say they don’t suffer from the smells emanating from the factory. The biggest impact has the been the constant stream of media coming to their corner store.

Young Ja said she knows some people react differently to the odors, but even though she and her husband are in their store from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day, they’re fine. Sales of sriracha have been brisk: Only one bottle remains on their shelves.

“I use it,” said Young Ja, a Korean-American. “I make it with chicken. Tastes so good. Try it.”

The introduction of new foods — and new smells — can offend olfactory sensibilities, said Lang, the UNLV professor. But that doesn’t seem to last long.

“I don’t think that in the early 19th century in old New York and old Philly that the folks were exactly pleased with the exotic foods and smells coming from Jewish delis and German beer gardens,” he said. “Previous rounds of immigration provoked the same kind of concerns.”

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