You could say hot sauce runs in Nan Keochanh’s family. In fact, there was a bowl of Laotian hot sauce at every single meal growing up.
“We are the king of hot sauce – we eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” says Keochanh, adding there’s a definite art in pairing the hot sauce to a particular flavour of the meal.
“Whatever type of meat it is and the way it’s cooked, there’s probably six or seven different types of hot sauces I can recommend.”
Wanting to reclaim his Laotian roots, Keochanh decided to commercialize his own personal hot sauce that friends would rave about for its fullness of flavour, contrary to many hot sauces on the market that dominate with scorch.
“The truth is, anybody who enjoys spice appreciates the flavour, and not the heat factor … I want to emphasize how we can complement any meal with hot sauce.”
And as a nod to his heritage, Keochanh chose the name for his “classic” sauce: “Jeow” – pronounced ‘Jay – Oh’ –, which is the Laotian word for hot sauce.
As a small start-up in Hamilton, Keochanh found himself having challenges with co-packers not being able to recreate his unique recipe. Not willing to compromise on his steadfast intent of flavour over flame, he looked to Niagara College’s Research & Innovation team to help fulfil his dreams.
“The biggest thing holding me back was standardizing the process and formulating the recipe in the language that co-packers use,” explains Keochanh, after realizing the importance of having his recipe written in the language co-packers would understand.
He tried four different co-packers, undergoing more than 16 trials and was still not satisfied with the flavour profile. “I was at my wit’s end and I thought I was going to give up … I didn’t know where to go and then I remembered Niagara College.”
The student and staff researchers at the Canadian Food & Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre met with Keochanh with the goal of understanding his needs and the obstacles he was facing.
“The challenge was to scale up a very unique, flavourful hot sauce,” says Ana Cristina Vega Lugo, PhD, Senior Food Scientist at the CFWI Innovation Centre.
“We needed to characterize the sauce and understand the effects of processing on food quality and food safety and how the ingredients interact with each other,” she explains. “And we needed to find a reliable supplier that could provide those ingredients to us, so we could replicate it.”
Her research team was successful in optimizing the process for easier commercialization and even created some different methods, as well as some alternative ingredients in order to keep the authenticity of Keochanh’s recipe.
While his sauce definitely packs some heat, the chili peppers are flanked by various complementing flavours like fresh lime, fish sauce and roasted garlic. Keochanh is beyond happy.
“The College has come the closest to reproducing my hot sauce to date,” he says. “I was just blown away with how well they worked and how efficient they worked together with me.
“They have helped me so much. I’m elated they’ve done things that many others could not do for me.”
Vega Lugo’s team also put Keochanh in contact with a smaller, start-up co-packer, though he’s still on the lookout for a larger co-packer. He has added more restaurants to his list of customers and has increased sales by 25 per cent.
“I am currently working on putting the Jeow into small packets, similar to ketchup packets,” says Keochanh. “I’ll be using the packets as business cards as well as samples. I think this will help me break into big mainstream fast food restaurants as convenience for hot sauce on the go.”
As for his experience with Niagara College, Keochanh adds: “I feel so blessed to have this opportunity to show the world that hot sauce isn’t just about the heat.”