Fighting words: it might be better than Everything But the Elote.
Last summer, Trader Joe’s graced its grocery shoppers with a hot, creamy, and tangy sauce I've been using religiously ever since. It packs pepper depth and fermented tang. It’s better than the big squeeze bottle of Green Dragon hot sauce, or the fiery habanero hot sauce, or the lemongrass-fragrant sambal that mysteriously disappeared from TJ’s shelves a few years back.
The great new product? Italian Bomba Hot Pepper Sauce: 6.7 ounces of vibrant, addictive, spicy chile paste.
A taste of this paste is something. Its heat is slow to build. First, you get a rush of deeply vegetal flavor that not many hot sauces or pepper pastes have. This almost-fruity, pepper-rich flavor is rounded out by the oil, giving it a rolling intensity. The paste has a soft, creamy mouthfeel. A few seconds in, a sharp heat rises. You feel it high in your throat, sizzling nicely, far short of being painful or overwhelming.
It’s a heat that slowly winds down. You can feel it pulsing low and cool a minute later.
To fully plumb the goodness of this god-given condiment, we’ll have to move briefly to Southern Italy, to Calabria, the region at the tip of the long Italian boot. When most people think Italian food, they don’t think spicy. But chiles are an important ingredient in deep-south regions like Calabria, where the renowned Calabrian chile grows.
Locals eat these chiles fresh, dried, powdered, oiled, and fermented. Bomba is a Calabrian chile paste. It can be made from Calabrian chiles plus a mixture of other vegetables, like eggplant, artichokes, and olives. It can be concentrated, so that peppers comprise more than 80 percent of the mixture, or it can be milder. The Trader Joe’s Bomba Sauce is pepper-forward perfection.
Like Tabasco and many other classic hot sauces, TJ’s Bomba Sauce is fermented, which accents the peppers in new ways. The paste also contains a trace of basil and two kind of oil, sunflower and olive. These prove to be vital, giving the rustic paste a nice creaminess.
How is bomba different from chile oil? Well, the bulk of the paste is crushed pepper. In Trader Joe’s bomba, shards of chile skin and even a few seeds appear in the depths of the jar’s oily, rust-orange mush. This bomba isn’t oil-infused with some chile. Rather, this is a great chile of the world that, deepened by fermentation and sparse use of two oils, takes center stage.
If you like spicy food or hot sauces, this sauce should be on your shopping list. What can you use it for? Spooning over a bowl of pasta. Doctoring eggs. Adding a layer to fried rice. Because of its slight creamy quality, it can work with butter-based dishes in ways that chile oil might not. It can improve burgers, beans, even soups.
One of the more traditional ways to approach bomba is to reach for one of everyone's favorite foods: bread. Bruschetta, for one, makes a lot of sense. When tomatoes are out of season, a bruschetta that uses them will suffer. But this bomba sauce is jarred, meaning it can be waiting unopened in the pantry year-round, called on when fresh summer produce remains a far-off dream. Smeared on toasted bread rubbed with cut garlic, the silkiness, roundness, and lush flavors of this great bomba shine.