Some people collect keychains when they travel. Some collect postcards. I collect hot sauces.
It was around 7 am in Caye Caulker, Belize. Without a soul in sight, I had the entire beach to myself. That was, until two dogs joined me to frolic in the deep blue Caribbean Sea. Since they had given me the sweet gift of serenity, the least I could do was return the favor in a dog’s favorite form: food. I went to a small shop across the street, grabbed some dog food, and last-minute added on a mini bottle of Marie Sharp’s Belizean Heat Hot Sauce. Weeks later, after returning to New York, I found that mini bottle in the bottom of my backpack, instantly transporting me from chaotic Brooklyn back to a Belizean beach.
That 2016 impulsive purchase sparked a new hobby: collecting hot sauces whenever and wherever I traveled. Having a hot sauce from a place I’ve visited allows me to bring a piece of my travels with me back home. As someone who is admittedly addicted to both the high and the pain that comes with eating seven-figure digits on the Scoville scale (I one time temporarily lost my hearing from a ghost pepper sauce in Florida), hot sauces around the globe are always a must-try, no matter which corner of the world I’m in, from Marseille to Malaysia.
Some of my favorite treasures, both past and present, are small unmarked jars of ‘nduja from Calabria, a Senegalese hot sauce from Brooklyn, La Anita Green Habanero sauce that I leave at my parents’ house as a safety stash, and a bottle of Ass-Kickin’ Scorpion Pepper Sauce from a small shop in Moab, Utah, acquired on a cross-country road trip with my dog, Bowie.
If you’ve ever wanted to change up your souvenir of choice and swap out the old cliche keychain, let this serve as inspiration to go for spicy shelf-safe pantry items instead. Here are some of my favorites I’ve picked up over time.
Cherry Bob’s Cherry Holy Habanero Hot Sauce (Traverse City, MI)
Traverse City, located in northern Michigan, is known as being the cherry capital of the world. Because of this, one of my first stops in town was at Cherry Republic, a store in the area selling all things cherry, from almond butter to barbecue rub to, you guessed it, hot sauce. Naturally, I went for Cherry Bob’s Cherry Holy Habanero hot sauce.
Don’t let the addition of cherries fool you into thinking the sweetness tames the heat; this hot sauce is easily one of my spiciest. Made with fire-roasted habaneros and Michigan cherries, the heat hits you right away and is backed up by a slight signature tartness. My favorite way to eat it is generously dolloped on a BEC.
Superb Blend Traditional Barbados Hot Pepper Sauce (Barbados)
I pride myself on being able to handle heat, and I sometimes order the spiciest thing on the menu out of pure masochism. However, after spending a week in Barbados, Bajan pepper sauce had me waving a white flag. Doting a signature yellow hue thanks to the addition of turmeric, Bajan pepper sauce has a slow burn, and instead of being spicy for the sake of being spicy, this fragrant sauce has a mustard-base, giving it that extra zing. After consuming heaps of Bajan pepper sauce during my time in Barbados, particularly on many late nights at local fast-food joint Chefette, it would’ve been sinister to not bring a bottle back home. For $4, I grabbed a bottle of Superb Blend Traditional Barbados Hot Pepper Sauce. I find myself adding it to just about anything, especially after a few rum cocktails in true Bajan fashion.
Amazon Habanero Pepper Sauce (Colombia)
Not all of my sauces have some romantic backstory. Sometimes they’re birthed out of sheer boredom. Insert Amazon Habanero Pepper Sauce, purchased on a five-hour layover in the Rafael Núñez International Airport in Cartagena, Colombia. I had no idea what I was in for, and simply chose a random sauce that spoke to me. Hey, they say when you know, you know. When I got home, I cracked this bad boy open to discover a thin, vinegar-forward sauce (think Tapatio). My favorite use has been adding it to homemade jams, whether in fruity fig or tomato-balsamic form. My nonna might roll in her grave, but it’s not a horrid idea to add a few dashes to the base of a marinara.
Syracuse Style by Syracha’cuse (Syracuse, NY)
Dorothy said it best when she clicked her heels twice: There’s no place like home. The newest addition to my collection came from a small shop close to my hometown: 20 East in Cazenovia, New York. I caught sight of a row of hot sauces, one labeled as “Syracuse Style.” Made by a father-daughter duo who own Syracha’cuse, Syracuse Style sauce is a Louisiana-style hot sauce, appropriately made with orange habaneros to represent the color of Syracuse University. This thin yet tangy sauce is versatile. I’ve thrown dashes on pizza, wings, and even thick hunks of sharp cheese, but my favorite use so far has been in a Bloody Mary.