The History of Hot Sauce

For those who want a real kick to their dish, a bottle of hot sauce is always the answer. Even the mildest sauces make ketchup and mustard seem utterly boring by comparison. And some of the more extreme versions will give your tongue an experience it won’t soon forget. Just as fascinating as the variety of these spicy products on the market today is the long and complex history of hot sauce.

To understand hot sauce and its history, one must trace it back to its roots, literally. The chili pepper, the main ingredient in this fiery condiment, has been around for ages. The first cultivated pepper dates back to 6,000 AD in South America. Although it wasn’t bottled like it is today, that same flavor was used in dishes even back then. For millenniums, this treat was unique to South America, but after the arrival of the Portuguese and Spanish in the 15th century, the secret was out.

The first journey the pepper took was up to Central and North America, where the Spanish realized a neat trick. They dried and crushed the pods, similar to what they did to European peppercorns, and made the world’s first chili powder. This of course led to the tastes that most of the world recognizes as Mexican, Tex-Mex and West Indian cuisine.

Asia was another continent to quickly embrace these spicy flavors wholeheartedly. From China (especially in the Sichuan Province) to Korea to all over southeast Asia, peppers made their presence felt. Many took the form of pastes and marinades used to lather meats and vegetables.

After centuries of appearing in various forms in dishes around the globe, hot sauce made its first leap into the modern world. In 1807, in Massachusetts, the first bottle of hot cayenne flavored sauce was sold. That same year, advertisements for the brand started appearing in the local paper. Little did the readers know the wave of sauce fever that would follow.

Throughout the 19th century, the modern form of hot sauce began to take off in America. With this spicy condiment being so popular around the world and with America being the melting pot of different cultures that it was, this is no surprise. It was specifically in 1868, however, when history was made. Edward McIlhenny put a new brand of sauce on the market which he trademarked “Tobasco” sauce, named after the pepper used. First manufactured on an island off the coast of Louisiana coast, it has been the most popular brand ever since.

Pretty soon most brands began to model themselves after Tobasco. Bottles began hitting the shelves decorated with flaming peppers, dancing devils and even the foreboding skull and crossbones. For many Americans, it was not just about what takes that chili and or buffalo wing recipe up a notch, it was about testing the burning point of the human tongue.

Of course, nowadays there are simply too many brands and variations to count. There’s the widely-popular Gohcujang sauce in Korea and there’s feiry African Piri-piri sauce. There’s the Guilin chili sauce in southern China and there’s the tongue-flaming Habanero sauces all over North America.

The history of hot sauce is more rich and more enlightening than just about any other condiment. The evolution of the original chili pepper and its journeys around the world are a great way to learn about human civilization itself. It just goes to show that the need for that extra kick of spice, even if it results in some heated taste-buds, is in the the blood of humans everywhere and not just in one part of the world.