Stinging Kombucha Hot Sauce

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The Secret Behind the Sauce


After 13 years, Karel and Monika Vitek sold Tabor, their famed downtown Czech food cart on the corner of Southwest Stark Street and Fifth Avenue, home to one of Portland’s iconic sandwiches: The Original Schnitzelwich.

Karel admits that the decision to sell was a tough one for him and his family, likening the process to what he imagines asking for a divorce is like. Between the decision to sell and handing over the keys, Karel would dream about it. “This whole affair was to see if I could apologize to myself for basically killing my baby,” he says.

But, as he adds, when one door closes, another one opens somewhere. And this new door wasn’t just in the same neighborhood as his old business; it was right next door, because Karel isn’t leaving the food industry. He’s just changing lanes.

His new Stinging Kombucha Hot Sauce was a decade in the making, but it’s taking a prominent role for Karel now that he has some time on his hands.

About 10 years ago, Karel developed a taste for spicy things. Tabasco was his original go-to — until that wasn’t spicy enough. Then he’d find another hot sauce and sprinkle that on foods, until that wasn’t spicy enough.

“The problem is, if you become numb to the burn, you have to suffer through the vinegar,” he says. “So I started experimenting with kombucha, since kombucha is less intrusive. It has less acidity. It has the same pH as vinegar, but it’s sweet and non-bitey. It’s round and pleasant.”

Karel guesses that his sauce is probably the world’s only kombucha hot sauce — and not because he was the first one to pioneer the concept, but because dialing in the fermentation process required a lot of trial and error.

“It was exploding in the bottle for the first year,” he says. “Lids would miraculously open, and corks would pop in the fridge, leaving a mess.”

So he began experimenting and settled on an elegant solution: stopping the fermenting early and then introducing a step that would allow that fermentation to restart a second time, this time in the bottle.

The result was a full-bodied, vibrant, flavorful spicy sauce made of roasted serrano, habanero, cayenne, and sweet chili peppers; roasted eggplant; and, to give it a little more body, sauerkraut, all finely blended after maturation.

And, he admits, it wouldn’t have happened without the intervention of a certain Dr. Seuss.

“If I hadn’t read the book Green Eggs and Ham, I never would have allowed myself to try kombucha,” Karel says. “I try everything now. I try to be open-minded. I like to ponder on whatever it is I’m eating, to let myself embrace the beauty of it.”

Stinging Kombucha Hot Sauce sits next to the salsas in the refrigeration sections at most New Seasons, The People’s Food Co-op, Food Front, The Beer Mongers, and other local grocers, as well as on the tabletops at the bar NEPO 42.

Chad Walsh is a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. He contributes to the Portland Mercury and writes for other publications, like Edible Portland.

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