Cooking Advice

The Condiment Our Food Editor Is Obsessed with Right Now

Our food editor, Amy Traverso, writes about the versatile condiment she can’t get enough of right now.

By Amy Traverso

Feb 15 2023


Fresh Zen’s addictive Chilli Garlic Sauce.

Photo Credit : Courtesy of Fresh Zen

My cravings tend to ping pong between cozy comfort food and bright, zingy flavors. Chicken and dumplings one day, chili-lime marinade the next.

When I crave boldness and heat (but not too much — this isn’t an episode of Hot Ones), I’ve been reaching for a locally made Chili-Garlic sauce from Fresh Zen, a Boston-based sauce company from entrepreneur Ruby Chan. It’s a hot sauce, but it has a thicker, silkier texture, like a creamy pesto. It’s rich in deep umami flavors and the level of heat from the Thai chilies is vibrant, but not painfully so. I absolutely love it on eggs, on burgers, chicken, or fish, and honestly, sometimes I eat it right out of the jar. It also happens to be gluten-free, which comes in handy when my gluten-sensitive family members come for dinner.

I first encountered the sauce last June at the Commonwealth Kitchen Food Show, a showcase event for the entrepreneurs at the non-profit food business incubator in Dorchester (graduates of the program include some Yankee Food Award winner McRae’s Candies). As my constant need for the chili sauce grew, I reached out to founder Ruby Chan, whose entrepreneurial story is too good to keep to myself.

Raised in New York’s Chinatown, Chan is the daughter of engineers who emigrated from Hong Kong to seek a better future for their children. Unable to transfer their professional credentials to the American job market, Chan’s parents were forced to seek entry-level restaurant work, washing floors and dishes until they had saved up enough money to open their own restaurant in Clifton, New Jersey. “Every day after high school, I’d take the Port Authority bus to New Jersey and walk a mile to the restaurant,” Chan says. “For my parents, opening the restaurant was was straight survival. We were free labor and we all had to work.”

But true to their goals, the Chan made sure their kids got good educations. Ruby Chan graduated college and earned an MBA at Bentley University, then worked her way up the ladder at companies like Gillette and Citizen’s Bank while raising four young children. “From the start, all I wanted was a cubicle job that had air conditioning,” Chan laughs. “Talk about low expectations! I did not ever want to work in a restaurant and sweat all day long.”

But she still loved food, and like many working parents, she struggled to get fresh, healthy dinners on the table every night. Her go-to solution: making batches of the ginger-scallion and chili sauces her father had served in the restaurant to serve over salmon or noodles. “When I was young, people would come into the restaurant and say, ‘Oh, this sauce is so good. Could we buy a quart of it?'” Chan says. “I’d go back in the kitchen and say, ‘Dad! They want to buy sauces! We could go on a vacation if we sold sauces!'”

Then, one day, Chan’s daughter brought that idea full-circle. Her friends all loved her mom’s food, especially those sauces. “She told me, ‘I think you should quit your job and just make sauce,'” Chan says. “That was an a-ha moment for me.” 

Chan began researching the idea of Fresh Zen in 2016. After connecting Commonwealth Kitchen, she took the leap in 2017. “Deciding whether to give up a big corporate paycheck, that was the hardest thing,” she says. “But Commonwealth Kitchen really spoke to me because it felt like a place like that would’ve hired my mom and dad. I was with like-minded people all trying to do the same thing. Here we are transforming this local food economy. We’re a voice talking about cultural foods. It’s such a beautiful thing.”

Fresh Zen currently makes three products: the chili-garlic sauce, classic ginger-scallion, and ginger-scallion with roasted garlic. You can find the line in 70 Whole Foods stores on the East Cost (so far), 30 Boston-area markets, and online.

I asked Chan what her parents thought of her success. “My mom still lives on the Lower East Side,” she says. “When I started Fresh Zen, I was so excited for her to see Commonwealth Kitchen. I thought she would be so proud to see her daughter create something out of nothing. But she was like, “I gave up everything, left a good job in Hong Kong for you to get education and work in an office…and now you’re sweeping floors in a kitchen?’ But now that we’ve built the brand, she recently saw me on Chronicle, and that’s when she got it. She said, ‘Oh my God, you were on TV?’ That’s the part where she feels a lot of pride and happiness.”

You can purchase Fresh Zen’s Chilli Garlic sauce on their website.