Silver Lining: A Houstonian Used The COVID Shut-Down to Start a Local Food Business
An Dao is a trained medical researcher by trade. With the COVID-19 shutdown in mid-March, though, which included certain segments of the medical profession, she found herself with unexpected free time. She used it to start Pantry By Nature, a business that sells Tiger Saté, a Vietnamese-style chili sauce, in mild, medium and hot heat levels.
Dao, who learned cooking in Vietnam from her grandmother, also lives with an autoimmune disease. For that reason, her goal was to create a saté without any of the things she has to avoid: gluten and MSG, as well as artificial additives and preservatives. It was the type of product that she’d otherwise been unable to find on store shelves. She developed her recipe in 2018, both for herself and to share with friends. It was 2020 though, and its “silver lining” of free time during the coronavirus-driven stay-at-home order, when Dao actually had the time to turn her home recipes into viable retail products.
“Since the pandemic hit, I’ve been taking advantage of all this free time to start selling it online,” she said. “Each jar is handmade in Houston in small batches, from fresh lemongrass, garlic, and peppers, all in healthy olive oil sourced from Italy.”
Dao sent a jar of each heat level to try and let me tell you: the Cook family are fans. My daughter is already insisting on buying replacement jars when these run out. Wanting to “do it right,” I asked her what the most common use was and she says that it usually is used to spice up bún bò huế, a traditional Vietnamese soup (although it can also be substituted for sriracha in phở). Unlike phở, which is ubiquitous and well-known in Houston, bún bò huế is a deeper, richer soup. While the base stock for phở is often built with simmering beef bones (or sometimes chicken or even a combination), bún bò huế’s foundation is often a stock made with both beef and pork.
I’ve made phở at home for years, with a scaled-down recipe from the excellent Secrets of the Red Lantern cookbook by Pauline Nguyen. (The original makes a huge stock pot of phở.) I knew from that experience that while I could order in bún bò huế, nothing beats homemade. My husband was game for a weekend cooking adventure, so off we went to an Asian market. (Tip: specifically aim for a Vietnamese market. H-Mart was sadly out of the type of pork sausage we wanted, so we subbed in a type more often used for bánh mì .)
After consulting with Cuc Lam, a dear friend and well-known cook in Houston who will soon be found at banh mi restaurant Yelo in Katy, I added pork bones to the stock mix for an otherwise fine recipe that I found online. Lam and I agreed: it’s perfectly alright to skip adding the traditional congealed blood cubes if it’s not your jam. The result was decadent, rich, incredibly full of collagen (as evidenced by the leftover stock in the fridge the next day) and well worth the time. Of course, it was an ideal vehicle for the Tiger Saté, too, and we experimented with every heat level. My favorites for this implementation were medium and hot.
There is truly a difference between each heat level — and a pretty big one between the medium and hot. The heat source in each sauce is different: red pepper flakes in the mild, jalapeños in the medium and habaneros in the hot. Nearly anyone can handle the mild and just enjoy the tamer lemongrass and garlic nuances instead of being bowled over by heat. Medium is my favorite, which strikes a balance between the two. It’s not tame, but it won’t blow your head off, either. Hot, on the other hand, will put your chilihead self (or friends) into a new state of capsaicin-induced euphoria. For those who like numbers: the Scoville units for the mild is 700, the medium 2,000 and the spicy 8,000.
Since then, at my house Tiger Saté has landed in many types of dishes, not just Vietnamese. It’s been added to ramen — both restaurant-made and packaged. It’s landed on eggs. It was grabbed as a substitute for the very sweet traditional chili sauce that normally goes alongside Thai fish cakes. It’s gone into “crack slaw” — basically sautéd pork egg roll filling without the roll. The uses are myriad. I could see mixing up a French fry dipping sauce with it, or, as evidenced by a photo sent by Dao, a dumpling sauce. Of course, adding it to noodle dishes, stir fries and fried rice is a no-brainer. It’s better to add it at the end as a finishing element rather than cook with it. “Cooking with Tiger Saté tends to boil off the enticing aromas which make the sauce unique,” Dao explained.
A sampler pack with one-ounce jars of each heat level is a mere $10. A sampler pack with four-ounce jars is $25. Individual flavors in larger sizes — 4, 8 and 16 ounces — are $11, $16 and $24, respectively. (Tip: there are currently special packaged sets for Father’s Day.)
Phaedra Cook has written about Houston’s restaurant and bar scene since 2010. She was a regular contributor to My Table magazine (now closed) and was the lead restaurant critic for the Houston Press for two years, eventually being promoted to food editor. Cook founded Houston Food Finder in November 2016 and has been its editor and publisher ever since.
Thank you Phaedra for the opportunity to show off Tiger Saté. I started making it as gifts for family and friends, and your article really illuminated how that love and care still goes into every jar.