A pair of California-made hot sauces is the main course of a “spicy” exhibition that opened last week in Los Angeles. "L.A. Heat" explores the culinary and pop culture impact of Sriracha and Tapatio -- two “hot-to-handle” condiments with very different origins that somehow managed to be a unifying ingredient in LA culture and cuisine.
For some the appeal starts with the bottle: Tapatio and its tapered glass body, slim neck and red cap; Sriracha, its chubbier relative made of soft, squishy plastic with simple eye-catching graphics splashed across its belly.
“With Sriracha you have the iconic green lid and red bottle, and the Tapatio you have the Mexican cowboy on the label with blue eyes,” says Chinese American Museum interim executive director Steven Wong.
“It’s always fascinating and so those two iconic images, I think, were ripe for artists to explore,” he says.
The artist known as Sket One with his Sriracha-inspired "Sketinguishers" at the "L.A. Heat" exhibit in Los Angeles.
Wong handpicked 30 artists to submit pieces for "L.A. Heat." Graffiti artist-turned-designer Sket One appropriated Sriracha’s multilingual design scheme and white rooster emblem for "Sketinguish 1-2-3," three fire extinguishers stripped and repainted, each one now representing a different color of the Mexican flag and festooned with Sriracha-inspired graphics. The spicy condiment metaphorically becomes the hot sauce that can put itself out.
“They are full, so if we had a fire right now we could put it out,” he laughs
“I did not put sauce inside of them. A lot of people always ask me and that’s not going to be the end result -- somebody actually picking it up and firing sauce at someone!”
And it's not just any hot sauce, but one created over 30 years ago in L.A.’s Chinatown by a Vietnamese immigrant, inspired by the spicy fish sauce of Southeast Asia. Sriracha would seep into Latino and American diets, just as the blue-eyed Tapatio cowboy was galloping into the cupboards of Asian-American kitchens, including Michael Hsiung’s.
“How taste buds and how we eat food here changes. You know, you put Tapatio on everything and you put Sriracha on everything,” says Hsiung.
His contribution for "L.A. Heat" is the exhibition’s flagship image.
“It’s a pen-and-ink drawing of the Tapatio main character riding on top of the Sriracha rooster, pouring out both sauces on top of a pepperoni pizza,” Hsiung explains. “It sounds very strange describing it, but for me they were working together to change the cuisine out here.”
Tapatio founder Jose-Luis Saavedra began selling his hot sauce door-to-door in South L.A. more than 40 years ago, eventually expanding across the U.S., Central America and parts of Europe.
Phung Huynh and her Sriracha-inspired painting "LAH" at the "L.A. Heat" exhibit in Los Angeles.
Sriracha creator David Tran introduced his blood red jalapeño sauce in 1980 shortly after fleeing war-torn Vietnam aboard a Panamanian freighter bound for California. Curator Steven Wong says Tran’s journey inspired a small mural by Audrey Chan.
“He’s in the foreground and in the background is the Huy Fong boat he emigrated on,” says Wong. Huy Fong was also the name Tran adopted for his company, Huy Fong Foods.
“In the mid-ground you have these flying or bombing peppers coming down. It could be a reference to the current controversy David is facing with the city or Irwindale,” says Wong.
Last year the city of Irwindale sued Huy Fong Foods over complaints that fumes from its factory east of L.A. are making some nearby residents ill. The company disputes the claims and is fighting the lawsuit.
In video artist Yoshie Sakai’s more light-hearted confrontation, called "Hot Side Story," dancers in Day-Glo Tapatio and Sriracha costumes face off against Heinz Ketchup and French’s mustard in a satirical "West Side Story"-like showdown.
Sandra Low?s Sriracha-inspired painting "Bean Sprout Uprising: Troop 626" at the "L.A. Heat" exhibit in Los Angeles.
“We would celebrate Chinese New Year and Cinco de Mayo and learn the traditional dances, so I feel like this show is completely aligned with my personal life,” laughs Phung Huynh, a Vietnamese-American painter who arrived in the U.S. as a toddler, around the same time as Sriracha founder David Tran. Her painting, inspired by Shanghai street poster advertisements of the 1930’s is called LAH.
“LAH, which also stands for Los Angeles Heat,” explains Huynh.
“And ‘lah’ in Chinese means hot, and so I wanted to play with the idea of the different meanings of hot: spicy, controversial, referring to the whole Sriracha production controversy in Irwindale,” says Huynh. “And also hot to describe somebody who is good-looking or sexy.”
The painting depicts cherubic babies riding a pair of strutting Sriracha roosters in the foreground, and a close-up of two mixed race teenage girls with eyes reddened and mascara streaked after overindulging on Sriracha.
“It’s something that spans cultures, and spans age groups and spans everything,” says artist Sket One of the hot sauces' appeal. He says Sriracha and Tapatio have actually become like global culinary ambassadors.
“It’s kind of what we hope for with world peace,” he laughs.
“You know, maybe Sriracha will bring world peace!”