The World's Most Important Hot Sauces, by Continent
Nearly every culture on this planet has realized that its cuisine is infinitely improved when doused in an unbearably spicy sauce. The peppers may change, but the idea remains the same: food needs more flavor and the people eating it will probably need another glass of water.
It wasn't easy to cull a comprehensive list of worldly hot sauces, but as the saying goes, "If you can't stand the heat, don't write about hot sauce." We're pretty sure that's how that goes. One of the difficult aspects is that there is no standard definition. Some sauces are thick, others runny, and a few are closer to chopped relish. This becomes problematic when considering Mexican salsa, but we decided that if a sauce has enough ubiquity and brand diversity to deserve its own supermarket section, then it doesn't really belong on this list.
Another rub of our research was that some sauces are primarily used in cooking. However, if it makes regular appearances tableside, we opted to include it. And lastly, since recipes differ not only between regions but also households, our ingredient lists were compiled from recipe commonalities and the compositions of the largest brands.
Now that we've explained the process, read on to learn about 35 different varieties of (mostly) red heat.
Key ingredients: Vinegar, pepper, chilis
Traditional Southern staples like gumbo and fried foods naturally pair with a dash of Tabasco or Texas Pete, but there's also a school of thought in American dining that everything from eggs to pizza is improved by a squirt o' sauce.
Key ingredients: Cayenne peppers, vinegar, garlic, butter/margarine
You can't have Buffalo wings with out Buffalo sauce, and you can't have a football game without Buffalo wings, so basically the entire National Football League owes a large debt of gratitude to Mr. Frank of Frank's Red Hot.
California, by way of Vietnam and Thailand
Key ingredients: Red jalapeños, garlic, sugar, the gumption of one immigrant
You know a hot sauce has reached critical mass when it enters the canon of $20 Halloween costumes and is crowned the greatest hot sauce in the world. But for those who have somehow avoided the phenomenon, brush up on your Sriracha studies here. And then go buy a bottle.
Scotch bonnet pepper sauce
Key ingredients: Scotch bonnet peppers
The Scotch bonnet is basically the Caribbean's mascot pepper, and a necessary ingredient in jerk dishes. Commercially, it's most often seen in the Jamaican brand Pickapeppa and is perhaps best known in the States for its ability to make cream cheese and crackers a semi-tolerable snack.
Belizean habanero sauce
Key ingredients: Habaneros, carrots
Mild Mexican sauces
Key ingredients: Chili peppers, vinegar
From fruit to chicharrones, Mexicans love putting hot sauce on snacks in a way that hasn't quite caught on in the US. But although they're used differently in the States (mostly on eggs and pizza), Valentina and Cholula are still major players in the hot sauce game. Buy 'em here!
Key ingredients: Onion, garlic, shallots, green and red pepper, vinegar, tomato
A thicker texture than many sauces on this list, Ti-Malice was designed specifically to spice up food. Supposedly, a legendary folklore trickster of the same name tried to use the spicy sauce to deter his buddy from coming over for lunch every day and eating all his meat. According to the story, the idea backfired and the whole town became addicted to the sauce, which earned Ti-Malice even more uninvited lunch guests. If you want to be overrun with guests, too, check out this recipe.
Panamanian mustard sauce
Key ingredients: Scotch bonnet or habanero peppers, mustard, spices
Those with more discerning palates might scoff at mustard's appearance in this sauce, and Panamanians with an interest in imperialism might be sore about US mustard gas tests in their country during World War II, but I digress. If you want this style, D'Elidas is the brand you're looking for. It's becoming much easier to find Stateside.
Key ingredients: Vinegar, plus Carolina Reaper, ghost chiles, or some other pepper with a terrifying name
The hot sauce scene is currently experiencing an unprecedented Scoville arms race, with hundreds of tiny producers trying to amp up the spiciness on their sauces to intolerable levels. These sauces are literally dangerous to serve in any size bigger than the tip of a toothpick and typically reserved for outward displays of Youtube masculinity/mean pranks.
GE and Thrillist are teaming up on a… hot sauce?
Seriously, GE and Thrillist are currently collaborating on a deliciously punishing, limited-edition recipe, which we’ll soon make available to the public. Click here to read about the most volcanic partnership in the history of condiments.
Key ingredients: Rocoto peppers, tomatoes, onion, lime, cilantro
Admittedly, this treads the fine line between hot sauce and salsa, but since it is such a popular table condiment (used on bread, potatoes, soups, and everything else), includes rare rocoto peppers, and Bolivia doesn't get nearly enough love, we decided that it's worth a mention. It's also given with takeout orders in clear plastic bags, which earns it bonus points. Learn how to make it here.
Aji amarillo sauce
Key ingredients: Aji amarillo peppers
Aji amarillo paste is one of the most crucial ingredients in Peruvian cooking (level up your skills here) and some go so far as to call it the soul of the cuisine. But in addition to being a base ingredient, it's also used as a creamy condiment on yucca and potatoes.
Key ingredients: Coriander, chile peppers (green, red, or aji), tomatoes, garlic, onions, cilantro
Without fail, every table in Chile has a bowl of pebre. It's similar to pico de gallo in Mexico, but made this list because it often skews spicier than its Mexican counterpart. The stuff is put on everything from bread to scrambled eggs to meat to basically whatever the heck you're cooking.
Molho de pimenta
Key ingredients: Malagueta peppers, vinegar
Brazil has a diverse array of hot sauces present in its national cuisine (used both tableside and in cooking), but the one thread they all share is vinegar and malagueta peppers (which are also huge in Portuguese cuisine, go figure) in their ingredients. Different households will most likely have their own variations on this theme, but the source remains the same even with the inclusion of onions, garlic, tomatoes, bay leaves, and more. But don’t you dare skimp on that malagueta!
Key ingredients: Hot peppers, cilantro, onion, garlic, lime
An emphasis on starches and plantains means Ecuadorian food isn't necessarily the most flavorful in Latin America, but this green sauce keeps things interesting. Try these flavors at home!
Hungarian crushed hot paprika
Key ingredients: Crushed hot paprika peppers, tomatoes
For a continent that facilitated so much cross-cultural trade, Europe’s cuisine is -- for some reason -- mostly devoid of hot sauces. Hungary, though, has fully embraced paprika as a national spice, and their crushed hot paprika paste can be found in everything from goulash to chicken paprikash. Allow Erős Pista or Piros Arany to invade your dishes.
Key ingredients: Red peppers, garlic, eggplant (in some)
While not typically extraordinarily spicy like most of the other condiments on this list, ljutenica, ajvar, and pindjur sync up nicely with Europe’s more relaxed standards for hotness (we’re talking about the sauces, not the people). They’re native to the Balkans, and are more like roasted pepper relishes, incorporating plenty of garlic, and occasionally eggplants and carrots. In some parts of the region, their names can even be used interchangeably -- learn how to make one or two of them right here.
Key ingredients: Red chilis, salt, vegetable oil
The red chili peppers used in most preparations of biber salçası are sun-dried and roasted before being made into a paste along with salt and oil (usually olive). The result is what essentially amounts to the salsa of Turkey, which has a place in shakshuka, on crackers, and atop pretty much any other dish that needs a little spicing up. The Mis aci (hot) version is definitely one to check out.
Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco
Key ingredients: Red peppers, olive oil, garlic, cumin, coriander
Basically Northern Africa's version of ketchup, harissa is everywhere and used as a base for sauces and stews as well as a table condiment for traditional African dishes -- like couscous and lamb -- as well as for fast food, pizza, and, according to NPR, tuna and egg sandwiches.
Piri piri sauce
Key ingredients: Piri piri chilis, citrus peel, paprika, bay leaves, tarragon, oregano, lemon juice
Portuguese explorers struck spicy gold when they discovered the African bird's eye chile (aka piri piris). They brought them home and developed a spicy chicken marinade that's now most associated with the fast-food chain Nando's. The sauce remains extremely popular in Portugal's former southern African colonies.
Key ingredients: Tomato, ground chilis, olive oil, parsley
Not to be confused with the Ghanian dancehall singer, this thick sauce is used throughout the Middle East, and is most commonly associated with Egypt, where it's often seen atop great pyramids of koshari, the country's national dish. Assuming your mummy (ha! Egypt joke!) probably doesn't know how to make this, dig up a bottle here.
Key ingredients: Fenugreek seeds, chile peppers, cayenne pepper, paprika, garlic, tej wine
Served as a side sauce alongside many Ethiopian dishes, awaze adds another level of complexity to Ethiopian cooking. Plus, there's always more injera that needs dipping. Buy a bottle here.
Key ingredients: Dried fish, chile peppers (usually cayenne), ginger, oil, onions, tomatoes
Hot sauces usually hit the spicy or sour notes easily enough, but scoring serious umami points requires a little something extra. The Ghanaian people learned to level-up their sauce with the addition of dried shrimp or herring, which makes it a powerful addition to stews and other hearty dishes. But be careful -- if you buy a jar, the spice level means you're definitely Ghana need a glass of water!!
Chinese hot mustard
Key ingredients: Dry mustard powder, cold water
This condiment’s beige appearance belies a formidable sinus-clearing ability, as any American-Chinese food newbie can attest. What’s even more duplicitous, though, is that it seems like it contains, I dunno, more than two ingredients… when it just doesn’t. It’s actually a simple mixture of hot dry mustard powder and cold water incorporated for maximum potency.
Key ingredients: Fermented broad beans, rice, chilis, salt
Not all doubanjiang, a fermented broad bean paste common in Sichuan cuisine, is spicy, but hot is probably the way most prefer it. Ingredient-wise, it’s fairly similar to Korea’s gochujang, except that it subs in fermented broad beans for the soybeans of its peninsular counterpart. Typically, the darker a specimen is, the more mature and spicy the resulting sauce will be -- an important factor to look out for when choosing the right one for your mapo tofu. Browse a few options here.
Key ingredients: Vegetable/sesame oil, chili flakes
If you’ve ever had Sichuan cuisine, you’re probably familiar with chili oil -- it’s that tongue-numbingly delicious, red-tinged oil served with wontons and in dishes like mapo tofu. Its simple formula (it’s just oil and chili flakes/chopped chilis) is often mixed with Sichuan peppercorns in China, and garlic/ginger in Japan to create rāyu, a popular topping for plain white rice; which, if you’re going to eat anything with a condiment, is probably a strong candidate. Shop around for either one here.
Key ingredients: Ground red chilis, shrimp/fish paste, garlic, shallots
The Thai (or bird’s eye) chili is world-famous now for its ubiquitousness in Southeast Asian cooking, but before it showed up in your spicy pad Thai GrubHub order (or in that stouter Huy Fong bottle), it got its start in condiments like sambal and nam phrik in Indonesia, Malaysia, and, obviously, Thailand. The common factor these sauces share is the inclusion of shrimp or fish paste, which imparts a rich flavor and also means that your ovo-lacto vegetarian cousin can’t eat them.
Key ingredients: Water buffalo/pork skin, chilis, galangal
There are many jeows (sauces) in Laotian cuisine, but jeow bong is certainly the bongiest (bong literally translates to “pickled,” because even though jeow bong isn’t pickled, it has a long shelf life and a funky flavor -- like a pickle!). This ubiquitous relish gets a uniquely chewy consistency from water buffalo or pork skin, and is a mainstay in many Laotian snacks like kaipen (a river weed). Scope out the recipe here.
Key ingredients: Coconut, red onion, red chilis, lime, cured fish
Sri Lanka is an island known for its serious spice -- even the meekest dish here will probably shoot you down. Coconut sambol, which is present on pretty much every Sri Lankan table, is somewhat similar in composition to its Indonesian/Malaysian/Thai relatives, except that it incorporates… coconut! It’s more of a relish than a sauce, per se, but seeing as it can get into exceedingly spicy territory depending on who exactly is making it, it merits inclusion. Learn how to make it here.
South Korea/North Korea
Key ingredients: Fermented soybean paste, glutinous rice
Gochujang is thicker and sweeter than most of these other hot sauces. It's viscosity comes from the inclusion of fermented soybean paste and glutinous rice, both of which give it a certain funkiness. You can find it most commonly in bibimbap and tteokbokki, and as far as bottles go, Sunchang's version is particularly popular.
Key ingredients: Horseradish, tomatoes, garlic
Not much grows out in Siberia, as hundreds of years’ worth of Russian novels have taught us. One thing that does grow out there, though, is horseradish (and despair). Khrenovina sauce has plenty of the former (the recipe's here), and the name loosely translates to “damn” or “balls.” It’s basically just tomatoes, horseradish, and garlic.
Key ingredients: Fenugreek, coriander, cilantro, dill, hot peppers, walnuts
The recipe for this Georgian hot condiment varies depending on which region you’re in, but it’s usually a hodgepodge of herbs and spices, along with several types of hot and sweet peppers that are ground together to a pasty consistency.
Masala chilli sauce
Key ingredients: Sugar, cumin, chilis
Indian cuisine, much like Sri Lankan, is already known for its bold spices and flavors. So, as one can imagine, there isn’t much need for additional hot sauces in the Indian cooking pantheon. That being said, the rise of street food and the globalization of the condiment market has contributed to a demand for portable Indian-inspired hot sauces. Masala chilli sauce is a popular addition to fried foods, and you should definitely check out the Maggi or Swad versions the next time you need a topping for your samosas.
Key ingredients: Cilantro, cumin, olive oil, green or red hot peppers
This red or green sauce is huge in both Yemen and Israel, where it’s also known to the legions of tourists in the form of a simple question: “Charif?” This, to the uninitiated, means “hot/spicy?” and is asked of pretty much anyone ordering shawarma or falafel from any food stand or restaurant. If you do like your meals charif, you’ll become acquainted with s’chug. Here's a simple recipe (from the Washington Post!) that'll get you nice and charif in no time.
Key ingredients: Orange juice, capsicums (that’s Australian for peppers!), goji berries
Australians are more or less just breaking into the worldwide hot sauce market, but their biggest brand right now is Bunsters, which is perhaps most well known for its Shit the Bed sauce. Whereas most hot sauces use water or vinegar, Bunsters is experimenting with using citrus juice -- primarily orange -- as a base, as well as incorporating goji berries, bird’s eye and scorpion chilis, and coconut sugar. ‘Straya!
Whatever your favorite hot sauce is
It’s common knowledge that penguins suck at making hot sauce, so when scientists and other support staff venture down to work at Antarctic research stations like McMurdo, they’re forced to bring their favorite hot sauces with them. Granted, the galleys here stock American standards like Tabasco and Frank’s RedHot, but if you want anything more than that, you’re going to have to either pack it with you or barter with the Air National Guard dudes to pick it up in Christchurch. Just make sure the penguins don’t break into your stash, or they’ll develop a taste for it and never leave you alone.
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.