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Some people collect tchotchkes on their trips. Others take photos. This hot sauce addict never comes home without a bottle of something spicy.

My happy place in Bangkok is not a temple or a tuk tuk. It’s the hot sauce section of the Central Embassy Food Halla massive pavilion of boutique food stalls, full of artisan cooking staples, attractive dry goods, and, most importantly, dozens of hot sauces. In nearly 20 trips to the city, I’ve never come home without a bottle.

I wasn’t always a fan of heat, but I was raised by one. My mother cannot sit down to eat until a bottle of Tabasco is within reach. As a small child, I’d watch her slice raw jalapeño in a dish the way another might slice apple. I was frankly scared of spice, but one day I pushed aside my anxiety and splashed some Cholula on a taco.

It opened up the food in an unexpected way. It wore off quickly, too. There was no blistering, lingering heat as I’d feared, but a solid, bright, addictive taste that wasn’t there before. I began experimenting, muscling through stronger sauces, hotter Mexican peppers, and getting familiar with cayenne in homemade stews. An obsession was born.

In Tokyo, I was more excited about the wasabi than the sushi. Hong Kong’s dim sum matrons who offered slivers of spicy ginger in the chili oil quickly became my favorites, and I got so excited by the pimientos de padrón in Madrid’s famous Mercado de San Miguel, I spent a ton of cash to find the super spicy ones. A bottle of hot sauce is now my souvenir of choice and my fridge is packed with bottles from both U.S. cities and abroad.

Jenny Adams has a fridge full of hot sauces for every occasion.
But what exactly makes a great hot a sauce? I called up Brandon Carter of FARM in Bluffton, South Carolina, where the tropical, humid summers and rich soil make chilies a bountiful crop.  Chef Carter is another huge fan of heat and makes a signature sauce from fresh chilies on a monthly basis.

“To be a true hot sauce, a chili pepper must be the No. 1 ingredient, and maybe even 80 percent of the sauce. Otherwise, it’s just a sauce that also happens to be hot,” he says. “A true hot sauce has nuanced, layered flavor—often from different chili peppers combined. I love habaneros and Scotch bonnets, for their citrusy quality. We also use aji dulce, a Latin American pepper. It isn’t spicy at all, but gives sauce a great vegetal quality.”

Here are a few favorites this travel writer has picked up on her travels and from Amazon. Admittedly, that’s the online Amazon. If anyone knows of a sauce to try on the actual river, I’m all ears and a plane ticket.

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Three Mountains Original Yellow Hot Chili Sriracha

Many people think sriracha is the Huy Fong brand with the rooster on the front. Sriracha is actually the name of the sauce, native to Si Racha, Thailand—75 miles southeast of Bangkok. If you love Huy Fong, expand to this yellow sauce made from burapa chilies, which pack higher heat, as well as a bright and lingering citrus. Three Mountains tempers the burn with a lot of sugar, salt, and vinegar. This one’s incredible on omelets or mixed into mayo or sour cream for an Asian-style dressing.

Heat Level: Medium-High

Find it: On Amazon. In Bangkok, the Food Hall at Central Embassy stocks it.

Hank Sauce Cilanktro

My first experience with Hank Sauce occurred not in a restaurant or on a trip, but in my office, where my boss was drowning a lone taco in about four ounces of it. I tried it and fell in love. We now keep bottles in the break room. Created by three friends back in college in Florida, this company has a fantastic lineup. Their Cilanktro starts with handfuls of fresh cilantro and a secret base that includes both butter and wine. This sauce is so velvety and cilantro-forward, without being overbearing. Killer on fish tacos.

Heat Level: Mild

Find It: On their site or eat it on a burger at their fast-casual restaurant in Sea Isle, NJ.

Chruk Cambodian-American Hot Sauce

“This sauce is based off a hot sauce my mom used to make,” says Allen Prom, chief operations officer of Yeak, a company selling Cambodian-inspired sauces at Heatonist in Brooklyn, as well as at specialty shops in Los Angeles and Denver. It’s a blend of green and red chilies, fire-roasted with garlic. Palm sugar gives a distinct sweetness. If you’ve got a hankering for bahn mi or Peking crispy duck, this is your condiment.

Heat Level: Hot

Find It: Online or at Heatonist.

Lizano Tabasco

These little nondescript bottles are on every Costa Rican tabletop. The fiery condiment is unforgettable—and not merely because it takes your mouth a moment to recover.

Thick and viscous, it has a solid, long burn with deep tomato flavor and lemon-lime on the finish. Lovely on arroz con pollo, but perfect for spiking your homemade chili, too.

Heat Level: Very Hot

Find It: At any restaurant in Costa Rica, or on Amazon.

Benny T’s Vesta Dry Hot Sauce

Made in Raleigh, North Carolina, this company claims to have made the “world’s first dry hot sauce.” I was skeptical that this was just fancy marketing. However, the experience is unique. Akin to Pop Rocks, if Pop Rocks were made from habanero, Scotch bonnet, Bhut jolokia, Carolina reaper, and Trinidad moruga scorpion peppers. That’s the combination in my favorite: the Very Hot. Adds an incredible burst of heat to creamy pastas or guacamole.

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Heat Level: Very Hot

Find It: On its website.

Bushwick Kitchen Weak Knees Gochujang Sriracha

Gochujang is like Korea’s ketchup. Made with glutinous rice for a signature sweetness, it includes fermented soy beans that give a mildly sour, fish-sauce complexity. Brooklyn’s Bushwick Kitchen combines sriracha and gochujang and it’s a revelation. This one has incredible umami with light, sour notes. Douse on ramen and pho, but also your bacon, egg, and cheese.

Heat Level: Medium

Find It: Purchase it on the Bushwick Kitchen site, or at Murray’s Cheese at New York’s Grand Central.

BLiS Blast Hot Pepper Sauce

This Grand Rapids, Michigan, sauce has chipotle, arbol, and cayenne, aged for a year in Kentucky barrels that formerly held bourbon, and the brand’s maple syrup. Welcome to a sweet, smoky, secret ingredient ideal for homemade Bloody Marys.

Heat Level: Mild

Find It: Here.

Adoboloco Pineapple Habanero

This one’s created with sun-ripened Hawaiian pineapples, picked only two days before production. The company was founded in 2011 by a family in Maui. Today, they operate a community farm and supply dozens of local restaurants. Dash it on pizza, splash it in coleslaw, or slather it on pulled pork sandwiches.

Heat Level: Medium

Find It: At places like Kihei Caffe in Maui, or purchase online.

NW Elixirs No. 5 Hott Jolokia

The Bhut jolokia grows in northwest India. Nicknamed the ghost pepper, it’s among the spiciest in the world. You need serious skills to tame it into an edible sauce, and no one does it quite like NW Elixirs of Portland, OR.

“Besides the flavor itself, I love the process of creation,” says chef and owner Andrew W. Garrett. “We partner with Bull Run Distillery and use their Pacific Rum barrels to create the smoky sweet flavor profile that finishes with the perfect balance of ghost pepper.”

Heat Level: Very Hot

Find It: On the NW Elixirs site.

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