STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Next, we have the backstory of Sriracha. The fiery chili sauce concocted by David Tran has conquered the American market, we're told. Tran came to the United States as a refugee from Vietnam. But the original Sriracha is actually Thai not Vietnamese. Michael Sullivan reports from the Thai city of Si Racha, where residents are just now hearing about the American brand.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: When David Tran was still a baby in Vietnam, 71-year-old Saowanit Trikityanukul’s grandmother was already cooking up huge pots of Sriracha sauce in her kitchen.
SAOWANIT TRIKITYANUKUL: (Through interpreter) When I was 9, my job was to mix all the ingredients together. I didn't pay much attention. I regret that now because I could've learned a lot.
SULLIVAN: Her grandmother is widely credited with being the first to make and sell the sauce. But Saowanit says it's really her great-grandfather who made it first before others in the family started selling it around town. They never patented the name, which has led to dozens of Sriracha brands being sold in Thailand and abroad, including David Tran's rooster brand, which I've brought for Saowanit to sample.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPOON SCRAPING GLASS)
TRIKITYANUKUL: (Speaking Thai) (laughter).
SULLIVAN: Wait. You're making a face. You don't like that one.
She needs a little water before she can continue.
TRIKITYANUKUL: (Speaking Thai).
SULLIVAN: She says a proper Sriracha sauce needs to be klom klom - the hot, the sour, the sweet and the garlic all blending together seamlessly, none overpowering the other. The American one, she says, just brings heat. I test her theory at a seafood restaurant a few miles away, interrupting a table of Thais eating lunch. I've got a microphone in one hand, a bottle of the rooster brand Sriracha in the other. I ask 30-year-old Tanpatha Punsawat to try it.
TANPATHA PUNSAWAT: (Speaking Thai).
SULLIVAN: A little bit spicy, but is it good or bad or...
PUNSAWAT: (Speaking Thai).
SULLIVAN: Just OK.
PUNSAWAT: (Speaking Thai) (laughter).
SULLIVAN: Twenty-nine-year-old Chuwet Kanja is next. He takes a spoonful and rolls it around in his mouth.
CHUWET KANJA: No good, no. (Speaking Thai).
SULLIVAN: Too bitter, he says, grimacing. But reactions like these haven't kept importers from bringing the American brand to Thailand. And it's showing up more and more at upmarket eateries and grocery stores in Bangkok.
ROBERT BOOTH: You know, it's not an overnight success. But that's OK.
SULLIVAN: That's Robert Booth of the Super Ting Tong Company, the Thai importer of the rooster brand. The importer's name means super crazy in Thai. And Booth does admit to encountering some local resistance.
BOOTH: You occasionally run into some people who have very strong views about the rooster brand not being the original Thai Sriracha. But given the love of spicy sauces and spicy foods in Thailand, I think there's more than enough room to incorporate a new player in the market.
SULLIVAN: This is the factory outside Bangkok, where the original Sriracha from Saowanit Trikityanukul's family is now made. The export manager is Paweena Kingpad.
SULLIVAN: So how many bottles of Sriracha sauce can you bottle per day? And how much of that is for export?
PAWEENA KINGPAD: We produce about 36,000 bottles per day - and for export and domestic, 50-50 percent.
SULLIVAN: They'd like to export more to the U.S. and tap into the American craze for all things Sriracha but admit the rooster brand has already crushed that dream. But they're not worried the American Sriracha will eat into their market share here and hope to achieve world Sriracha domination by ramping up exports to another country where they're already doing well.
SULLIVAN: How big?
KINGPAD: 100,000 bottle per month at least.
SULLIVAN: Are you the No. 1 Sriracha distributor in China?
KINGPAD: Yes, correct.
SULLIVAN: So you've lost the American market, but you're No. 1 in a much bigger market.
KINGPAD: Yes, yes.
SULLIVAN: For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Bangkok.
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