Talking hot sauce innovation, urfa biber and the potential of koshu with DevilDog

Spicy food is hot right now – certainly when it comes to condiments.

For example, there has been a rise in interest in lesser-known Asian condiments and sauces over the past year, of which 56% of UK consumption is of ‘spicy’ variants, with the more curious UK consumer providing retail and foodservice teams with plenty more wiggle room in development in terms of flavour combinations, cuisines and even formats.

And there’s plenty of penetration when it comes to spicy in the UK.

According to the latest data from AI-based food intelligence platform Tastewise, 94.79% of 32,693 restaurants in the UK have spicy flavour profiles on their menus, spanning an impressive 599,577 dishes.

Clearly, UK chefs are well-acquainted with spicy flavours, and it comes as no surprise that many are pretty obsessed with them, considering the possibilities.

Liam Kirwan is a red-hot example. Boasting a foodservice CV spanning the last 26 years across four different countries; Liam has held senior roles at high-end hotels, renowned gastropubs and leading restaurants (including a four-year, head chef stint with Hawksmoor Group).

However, Liam has since left it all behind to focus on his new passion – hot sauce – with his artisan, small-batch operation, DevilDog, providing curious consumers with a route to new and exciting hot sauce combinations, driven by his inherent creativity and expert ability in professional flavour development.

In his expanding arsenal of innovative hot sauce creations, Liam has an aji lemon drop, sea buckthorn and clementine option (recommended for ham or nut roasts, as well as turkey and roast carrots); a sour cherry, habanero and porter hot sauce (which has notes of coffee and aged balsamic); and a fearsome charcoal naga chilli sauce (which features naga vipers, Carolina reapers and birdseye chillies).

“Use as a dip, marinade or finishing sauce, it’s great on pork ribs, veggie kebabs, even ice cream!” reads the charcoal naga sauce recommendation.

If you want to learn about hot sauces, look no further than DevilDog and Liam – the Willy Wonka behind the wheel.

Dancing with hot sauce

“For me, it’s not about making the hottest sauce in the world, it’s about making the tastiest,” Liam told me.

“There are a lot of ex-chefs making hot sauces and I’ve found that many of those I’ve met have different approaches.

“I wasn’t always what you’d call a ‘chilli head’, and one of the sauces that really got me into it was Bajan hot sauce. I’d seen it out in Barbados and loved it – it was so simple to make.

“I found a recipe online and started making my own in my spare time with loads of scotch bonnets – I think that’s my favourite chilli, there’s so much flavour to them.

“My Hawksmoor sous chef and I had a rum cocktail and hotdog popup in London around six years ago called RumDogs. We ran it around Christmas and a big seller was the Hellhound – a chilli dog with Bajan hot sauce.

“The pop-up finished when I moved up to Manchester to run a new Hawksmoor restaurant, but on my days off, I was always trying to find new recipes and discovering new chillies, using myself as a guinea pig and trying new things.

“My tolerance continued to grow and I was researching other sauces, making them for friends and colleagues. Being a chef I’m naturally drawn to things I haven’t had before. When I was backpacking in east Asia with a friend many years ago, there was nothing we wouldn’t eat. We wanted to try everything!

“So I’ve always been attracted to things I haven’t had before and what interested me when it came to chillies was the difference between a fresh chilli, a dry chilli and chilli powder, how they feel in the mouth and how they can play with the senses.

“I launched DevilDog in the summer of 2019, and I’ve had a few of my chef friends asking ‘why are you leaving cheffing to do chilli sauces?’

“I had to explain the love I’d found for chillies and that I don’t think there’s another internationally-occurring ingredient that can deliver so much in a mouthful.

“If you can make the chilli sauce just right – be that by blending a couple of different chillies together, whether they are dry, fresh or a mixture of both – you can almost dictate the peaks and troughs of the heat as the sauce is developing in your mouth.

“And as your tolerance grows your palette can even start to identify all those little citrus flavours and specific flavours of, say, green jalapenos.

“The fact that you can make people’s taste buds dance in their mouth is just amazing. That just ticked all of my boxes and satisfied my need for creativity.

“And I know I’ve barely even scratched the surface and there’s a whole world of chillies that I haven’t even tried which makes it so exciting. I’ll never get to the point where I’m bored and there’s nothing else to learn not even including matching chillies with other flavours.”

Hot vs Sweet

DevilDog first appeared on my radar after Ben – our Head of NPD – told me he was collaborating with Liam on a hot sauce for a client, the Manchester-based chai cafe Aunty Ji’s.

He and Liam created a dundicut, apricot and black cardamon chilli sauce, which is bottled and sold via the café’s website. Ben said that Liam’s approach is to often pair sweet with hot – utilizing interesting fruits and rare chillies.

“It comes from my days of writing menus, the whole hot and sweet idea; it almost accentuates the heat and can bring out some of the flavours from the chilli,” Liam explained.

“And if you want to tone down the heat, you can pair a citrus with it which will at least balance it out a bit or sometimes delay the heat. This is what I love, pairing other ingredients can either bring the heat to the front of the flavour profile, introduce it gradually or allow it to slowly creep in at the end.

“We have a scotch bonnet, mango and lime sauce, which is packed with flavour. The scotch bonnet has a wonderful zestiness to it and the sweetness of the mango develops the sauce, giving it body. You’ll get the raw heat of the scotch bonnet, then the lovely sweetness of the mango, and then, cutting through the whole thing is the lime juice, and it just takes away the heaviness of it.

“The cut-through of the citrus just gives the sauce more layers – its pure sunshine in a bottle. It makes me smile when I taste it, it transports me to a beach.

Understanding Urfa Biber

DevilDog have an urfa biber and watermelon chilli sauce, which is described as “a subtle blend of fragrant Middle-Eastern flavours [to] compliment the gentle smokey warmth of urfa biber. An ideal addition to any lamb, chicken or fish dish, [it’s] also great on grilled halloumi or for bringing your salad to life as a dressing.”

But what exactly is urfa biber?

“It’s a sun-dried pepper from Turkey – urfa is the region and biber is a pepper,” revealed Liam.

“They pick them later to get them a little sweeter and then sun-dry them so you get this molasses – very mild, smoky, just above black pepper level of heat. Bittersweet and a rich flavour.

“I’ve never seen them fresh but they look a little like a jalapeno. I was given a sample a couple of years back and I had it for ages not knowing what to do with it! And then a friend of mine of Iranian heritage suggested going down the Middle-Eastern route.

“Straight away I was thinking about those Middle-Eastern shops you see with watermelon and pomegranates outside. So I went to a big Turkish store nearby and just bought everything I didn’t know and started combining things in a sauce.

“I had dates in there – I was using ‘a hot date in Baghdad’ as a working title. And I gradually extracted flavours, leaving some pomegranate, fresh watermelon turned into a syrup, the urfa biber and some dried lime which I hadn’t used before (and I’m now addicted to).

“What I love about this sauce is that I’ve seen watermelon in a sauce before but not that particular combination of flavours, so its quite unique to us.”

Gochugaru & Ginger

Here at PURE NPD, we recently explored the potential of gochugaru – the Korean chilli powder (or flakes) traditionally made from sun-dried Korean red chilli peppers.

And, as luck would have it, DevilDog have a gochugaru and ginger chilli hot sauce.

“I’d come across gochugaru a fair bit in various restaurants so I knew it was an ingredient I’d like to use in a hot sauce,” he told me.

“When I was with Hawksmoor, they had a cocktail called the Shaky Pete, which is great if you’ve got a hangover – it’s the best cure. The cocktail is beer-based with fresh ginger juice made into a syrup. I was on a bit of a health kick and it was really good for your digestion and I had a shot of it every morning – I felt like Superman!

“I remember the first time I tried it – it blew my head off! I’d eaten a lot of ginger but it was always cooked – I’d never really had raw ginger. The raw juice is like drinking the hottest chilli turned into a juice, it ticked all the same boxes that hot chillies did for me.

“So I decided I needed to make a sauce out of it, to make a hot sauce where the heat didn’t come just from chilli. And that’s what really started the gochugaru and ginger sauce.

“My wife and I love steamed dumplings, so we use the sauce on there, as well as as a salad dressing with a little oil.

“I often tell people not to just use it as a dip on the side of the plate but use it, mix it in with a little coconut milk maybe, a bit of rapeseed oil or vinegar to bring out the flavours. It’s almost like adding water to whiskey, which opens it up, and it’s the same with sauces.”

What’s next for DevilDog?

DevilDog are to soon release a range of seasonings and rubs that can be used directly or as a base for dishes and dressings – but in terms of hot sauces, Liam has his eye on a certain Asian condiment.

“My wife pointed me in the direction of koshu, it’s a Japanese condiment that they use for fish,” he said.

“To make it, you finely zest yuzu with sea salt and green chilli, which you then press into a paste. As you dry it, it slightly ferments. And they’d use a bit of that on top of their fish.

“I’ve bought some blood oranges, pink grapefruits, emperor oranges, limes, lemons and I’ve made little versions of them into koshus using chillies that aren’t quite as hot as the Japanese green chillies.

“It’s still not quite there, I’ve bought some packets online which obviously aren’t as good as the fresh stuff but it gives me a good idea of where I’m heading with it.

“I want to do something with koshu, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be Japanese, just something that fits with the flavour profile. It seems the perfect thing to mix with the beer – a sour beer maybe with a citrus, salty flavour.

“It’s very mild in heat. Maybe I’ll add something else in there. Maybe a radish, who knows!”

Tom Gatehouse
Tom is the editor of Pure NPD Insights. He previously spent three years at William Reed’s food insight platform Food Spark, was the co-founder and editor of The Cream, is a former Restaurant magazine columnist and has had chef training in fifty of the best restaurants in the UK and Europe.

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