The fiery world of chili sauces is getting spicier with J Hot Sauce
Tram Dang is incredibly happy. Radiating joy with an infectious laugh and a huge grin to match, Tram is producing the uniquely styled J Hot Sauce with help from his friends and an extremely positive attitude.
The story of his hot sauce is homegrown. What began as an experiment in science and flavor with his friend became his career, “I like hot sauce, but it’s kind of difficult to find the good ones here. The hot sauce we use with pho, I don’t like it. So, me and my friend Jay decided to do it ourselves. We started with complicated recipes, lots of stuff and finally we ended up with a simple recipe. We refined it and refined it until we ended up with the recipe we have now. We actually started three years ago, but just for eating at home,” says Tram.
Tram says fermenating his chilies is the important process to his sauce. Fermentation means keeping the food in a way that it is broken down by lactobacillus acidophilus bacteria, this bacteria actually makes it beneficial to gut health. Tram began fermenting his sauce by locking the mixture in airtight jars and patiently waiting.
“I think fermented hot sauce is good for your digestion. I think it smells better and tastes better. In my opinion, when I open the bottle it smells very pleasant. I chop the chili and onion and garlic, and mix with water and put salt in it and I let it sit there for about four weeks. Lacto fermented means no air, so when no oxygen gets in, then this kind of bacteria grows and eats the sugar so it’s an easy process,” explains Tram.
He continues: “After awhile, Jay left Vietnam. I made it my own, and started making it for eating and had jars everywhere and different kinds. Last year, I quit my job and I didn’t do anything for over a year. I chatted with Jay and said, ‘I didn’t know what to do.’ I was feeling lost and Jay said ‘why don’t you make hot sauce?’ The recipe we created is simple and easy and there are chilis everywhere. In Vietnam, hot sauce has lots of additives and is not very healthy. So Jay encouraged me to start a business. And basically I really like hot sauce, I really like fermented hot sauce.”
Support from friends is interwoven in the journey of J Hot Sauce. From Jay’s encouragement and scientific background, to the artwork on the bottles by Tram’s close friend, to his friends taking home litres of sauce and consistently putting in orders. Tram is beyond grateful for the relationships he has, even naming his sauce after his best friend, and everyone seems very grateful for Tram in return.
As for the process of making the sauce, Tram looks to another important personal relationship he has with his beloved local supplier, “I get the chilis from an old lady at the market. I have her phone number so whenever I need the chilis, I call her or her daughter or granddaughter. She’s very nice and every time I ask her, she collects the good ones since a lot of times chili is broken or has black seeds which makes it bitter,” says Tram.
With the fresh handpicked chilis, Tram then mixes them with chopped onions, salt, garlic, and water. Everything is measured with great precision as a lack of balance can result in an altered taste, “depending on the room temperature and the darkness, this kind of bacteria likes the dark, in three weeks you can start to extract the juice, but four weeks it’s a little bit sour and I like that. So I normally let it sit there for four weeks. I think room temperature is perfect for it to grow,” says Tram. He then bottles the sauce and prepares it for sale.
When asked about any challenges he has faced, he discusses how this style of product is new, and people are often afraid to try it. He wants to reassure customers that it’s safe and a huge trend in health foods, “It’s, of course, difficult, like for the Vietnamese market I think it’s difficult because people have the hot sauce they’ve been using and it’s very affordable. And at the moment I have been looking at the market. It’s not a familiar taste for the Vietnamese. And it’s a one-man business: I make it, I market it, I deliver it. I have been talking with my friends to make a team so we can make it a little bit faster,” Tram says.
“The way I make hot sauce and the reason I make hot sauce for business is because I like it and I believe it’s good. I hope people accept it and people like it. It’s been a year but it’s still very new. It’s difficult to tell people to trust it but I want them to know they can trust this product. I just need to find a way to tell them it’s safe and it’s good,” says Tram. And if his many friends and repeat customers are any sign of how trustworthy, delicious, and singular his hot sauce is, then the future of his brand is as bright as his smile.
You can find J Hot Sauce on Facebook (www.facebook.com/Jhotsauce) where you can place orders for delivery: 60ml bottles sell for VND60,000, 200ml jars are VND180,000, 500ml jars are VND425,000, and large jars of 1500-2000ml are also available.
Images by Vy Lam