Some like it hot: six hot sauces from around the world

Some like it hot: 6 chilli sauce recipes from around the world

by Helen Graves 7 March 2019

Chilli sauces can be found all over the world, boasting a fascinating range of heat, colour and flavour. Helen Graves introduces us to six of the most popular, with recipes for each so you can make them at home.

Helen Graves is a freelance food and travel writer, recipe developer and editor. She writes one of London's oldest food blogs, Food Stories and is editor of Pit Magazine, an independent magazine about live fire cooking and smoking. She is based in South East London and loves carbs, cats, crabs and kebabs.

Helen Graves is a freelance food and travel writer, recipe developer and editor. She writes one of London's oldest food blogs, Food Stories and is editor of Pit Magazine, an independent magazine about live fire cooking and smoking. She is based in South East London and loves carbs, cats, crabs and kebabs.

Hot sauces have been produced around the world for centuries and are an essential part of many cuisines – but what makes them so appealing? We know that humans love the heat of chilli peppers because they contain capsaicin, a compound which happens to be a perfect fit for receptors in our mouths designed to register burning from other heat sources, like a boiling hot cup of tea. We experience pain, which triggers the brain to release enjoyable endorphins, our body’s home-grown opiates. So we get off on the buzz of eating these aggressive little fruits but we also appreciate their flavour, which varies depending on the particular chilli; from the teeny tiny orange chiltepin to the wide green poblano.

Hot sauces blend chillies of varying heat levels with a range of other ingredients which may enhance flavour and/or mitigate firepower. At its most basic, a hot sauce is just pounded chillies and salt, but other ingredients bring depth and umami to complement the heat. For example, dried seafood such as shrimp may be incorporated to provide funk (African shito, Singaporean XO), while for others, such as an Indian chilli chutney, spices are key.

Consistencies of sauce vary from the thick, sweet and almost ketchup-like (e.g. sriracha) to thin, vinegary and hot (see the Louisiana-style cayenne sauces, or Belizean habanero). Those made with freshly pounded chillies and herbs such as Yemenite zhoug may be served fresh, while others are fermented or aged. Some sauces are thick pastes, such as Korean gochujang, while others are oils with chilli sediment like the Chinese chilli oils.

Whatever the style, a good hot sauce is appreciated for its ability to add excitement to meals, be it simply sploshed onto food as a seasoning (perhaps poached eggs or oysters) or as a more fundamental component of a recipe – see the speciality fried chicken found in Nashville, Tennessee, or the sauce used to coat buffalo wings. Here are six different hot sauce recipes to get you started.

Chipotle and hibiscus hot sauce

Despite its cultivation all over the world, the chilli pepper plant is native to Mexico, where people use the fruits to enhance bright, fresh salsas and deep, smoky sauces. The chipotle – a smoked red jalapeno – is an essential chilli in Mexican cuisine which is commonly preserved in a rich sauce and called chipotle en adobo. These chillies can then be added to recipes as needed along with their sauce to add a touch of spice and smoke, or as the basis for a hot sauce as per the recipe above. Chipotle chillies are hot, so remove the seeds unless you enjoy your sauces very spicy.


Debate is still raging over the exact origins of this Thai hot sauce, and there are several different stories about who invented it. Made from chillies, garlic and vinegar, it’s like a spicy, garlicky ketchup and has become something of a cult product. The chillies and garlic are given a brief three-day ferment with some sugar to boost the process a little bit, then blended into the classic smooth sauce we’re familiar with. The homemade product blows the bottled stuff out of the water, and is very simple to make.

Scotch bonnet, pineapple and mango hot sauce

Scotch bonnet peppers have fierce heat but are also known for their tropical flavour notes, which pair well with sun-soaked fruits like mango and pineapple. This recipe uses griddled pineapple, which brings an extra, slightly smoky dimension to the sauce. This works particularly well with jerk chicken or Mexican food, such as tacos.

Lacto-fermented chilli sauce

An everyday hot sauce should have just the right balance of heat – an enjoyable prickle but not so much it needs rationing on the plate. Flavour is also important; it should be clean and fresh but with enough going on in the background to hook you in and firmly secure its place as a staple condiment. An essential friend you can add to anything to improve it by at least eighty percent.

This is a brilliant everyday hot sauce recipe, even if I do say so myself. The lacto-fermenting process means it has a tang and depth of flavour you just don’t get from regular hot sauces. It’s mild enough to splosh all over everything at any time of day but interesting enough to keep you coming back for more. I eat so much of this I’m constantly fermenting a new batch. My friends are also very keen on it, so bear that in mind if you’re going to start sharing it out.

<em>Sambal belacan</em>

Sambal is native to Indonesia and is popular throughout Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Brunei. This Malaysian-style sambal belacan is made with shrimp paste and at its most simple contains just three ingredients – chillies, shrimp paste and lime juice. Other ingredients can then be added to personalise the mixture as I’ve done here.

The shrimp paste has been produced by salting, drying and fermenting shrimp which makes for a very funky smelling brick of umami. Once toasted and mixed with other ingredients, however, it brings fantastic savoury depth to a sauce and plays well off the sourness and heat to balance everything. It’s an essential accompaniment to many Malaysian meals.

<em>Nam pla prik</em>

Nam pla prik is an essential dipping sauce in Thai cuisine and it demonstrates how Thai food is all about the balance of sour, salty, sweet and spicy. The amount of chilli is easily changed here, and it’s important to play around with the balance of other seasonings too, to find out how you like it. This recipe is just a guideline, since ingredients vary – as do tastebuds!