How McDonald's Szechuan Sauce went from a "just fine" '90s relic to a riot-causing cult condiment

Parallel to Szechuan Sauce's rise to fame is a complex narrative about the Americanization of "global" flavors

By Ashlie D. Stevens
January 24, 2021 10:59PM (UTC)
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(Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

"Saucy" is Salon Food's condiment column. In each edition, we give you the background on a condiment that should be in your pantry and how you could be using it to spice up your meals (often literally). This week, we turn our attention to McDonald’s Szechuan Sauce. 

What is McDonald's Szechuan Sauce? 

McDonald's Szechuan Sauce was a condiment from 1998 that developed a cult following after being referenced in a 2017 episode of "Rick and Morty." It was a dark brown sauce that had a touch of acid from the addition of apple cider vinegar and a little nuttiness from roasted sesame oil. (This distinguished it from the chain's OG sweet and sour McNugget dipping sauce.) It does not contain Szechuan (or Sichuan) pepper, which is commonly used in actual Sichuan cuisine. 

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Packets of the original sauce are still floating around online, where you can read the full ingredient list. 

How did McDonald's Szechuan Sauce make a comeback? 

Adam Chandler, the author of "Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey through the Heart of America's Fast-Food Kingdom," remembers when McDonald's launched its Szechuan Sauce, a limited-edition menu item that was part of a promotion for the 1998 animated Disney movie "Mulan." He was a teenager living in Texas who was a touch too old to see "Mulan"in theaters—"Though my friends tell me it's for all ages," he joked over the phone—but he hit the drive-thru just the same. 

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"You know, maybe it was because I was a teenager, but I think it was pretty well understood that when McDonald's put out a new McNuggets dipping sauce, you had to try it out," Chandler said. "And I think I liked it. It felt innovative, even though it was just, you know, a lot of corn syrup, a fair bit of sugar and something that just tastes a little bit different." 

Almost 20 years later, after McDonald's announced they would bring the sauce back for a one-day promotion, police were called in to control a crowd that had physically pushed its way into a packed Los Angeles McDonald's, chanting, "When I say 'Szechuan,' you say 'sauce.'" Similar scenes played out across the country: Groups camped out overnight to secure a place in line, customers traveled down from Canada, fist fights broke out and a stabbing was also reported.

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Some people began selling packets of the limited-issue sauce for more than $200 a pack on eBay, where, months prior, an original packet of Szechuan Sauce from the '90s was sold for $14,000.

Running parallel to Szechuan Sauce's delayed ascension to unexpected "cult condiment" status are narratives about the complicated nature of the Americanization of "global" flavors, as well as fast food's cyclical ability to dictate and be dictated by pop culture, even while serving as a benchmark for mainstream tastes. 

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In 1983, McDonald's introduced the McNugget alongside four signature sauces: BBQ, honey, hot mustard and sweet and sour. The chain's sweet and sour dipping sauce was a clear imitation of the sweet and sour sauces found in Chinese American restaurants across the U.S., which — according to writer and food tour guide Michael Lin — was unsurprising.

"Considering that a large portion of Chinese immigrants opened restaurants to make a living upon their arrival to the country and that Chinese Americans spread all throughout the vast country (even in small towns and rural areas), Chinese American cuisine has deep and widespread roots here," Lin wrote via email.

Lin continued, "Chinese American food has had a long history, and it has been significantly impacted by local ingredients and Americans' tastes and preferences. So many supposedly Chinese dishes have actually been created here in the U.S. by American born Chinese descendants." 

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As such, McDonald's sweet and sour sauce would have felt familiar to Americans, though it's worth noting that it's distinct from traditional Chinese "sweet and sour" sauces that rely on a mixture of light vinegar and sugar. For many Chinese American restaurant owners, it was "it was accommodate or bust," Lin wrote in his email.

Americans anecdotally have a preference for thicker sauces — barbecue sauce, ketchup, mayonnaise and salad dressings — and enjoy things that veer more sweet than bitter. "To cater or accommodate to Americans' preferences, the very traditionally lighter (and thinner) sweet and sour sauce was changed to this thicker texture that we are more used to today," Lin wrote. 

That consistency also makes for a more convenient nugget dipping sauce, considering that it will likely be overwhelmingly eaten inside a moving car. The sweet and sour seems to have been the base from which McDonald's eventually developed its Szechuan Sauce 15 years later. (Rumors still persist that the dipping sauce was simply a mixture of the chain's sweet and sour and BBQ sauces, which, if you compare the ingredient lists, isn't the case). 

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I'm not sure that the company could have envisioned the decades-long tail Szechuan Sauce would have. Looking back at how Szechuan Sauce was marketed in the '90s, it's obvious that ad execs relied on tired stereotypes to signal to viewers, "Hey, this tastes, uh . . . Asian." As Entertainment Weekly's Suna Chang reported at the time, where Disney's "Mulan" drew positive reviews from Asian American critics for its cultural sensitivity and historical accuracy, the McDonald's spots generated charges of ethnic stereotyping. 

"Among other things, the spots feature a headband-wearing Ronald McDonald karate-chopping the company's logo, and patronizing, isn't-that-cute jokes about such Asian customs as sitting on the floor to eat," Chang added. "Meanwhile, Chicken McNugget containers are emblazoned with the cringe-worthy puns 'Run, don't wok . . .' and 'McNuggets are Chinamite!' Says Paul Leung, a Chinese-American student at Cornell University who started an E-mail protest campaign, 'You don't even have to be Chinese to be offended.'" 

Jeff Yang, who was the founding editor of the Asian-American publication A. Magazine, said the campaign was "the equivalent of a drive-by mooning." 

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"Here is such a clear contrast between the clearly thoughtful efforts of Disney and the far more cartoonish and offensive caricatures in the promotional campaign," he told Chang. 

"Cartoonish" is actually a great way to describe the original Szechuan Sauce itself. One dictionary definition of the word indicates that it serves as a descriptor for things that are "unrealistically simplified." To that point, so many restaurants lapse into a trap of invoking a country or region's cuisine by relying on a single ingredient, according to food writer Su-Jit Lin.

"They'll call anything with soy sauce 'Asian,' anything with sweet chili 'Thai,' anything with gochujang 'Korean,' and on and on," she said. "Like, imagine if folks started putting ketchup on stuff and calling it 'Italian' just because it has tomatoes in it. That's how ludicrous it is and ignorant of the culture when mass market and even local restaurants do this."

"Just because it's a strong presence doesn't mean that it's their one single note [or] culinary contribution, nor a representation of an entire country, much less a continent," she continued.

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It's perhaps a tricky endeavor to demand nuance or authenticity from a fast-food restaurant tasked with feeding 62 million people a day. For some, fast food can emerge as a specific marker of blended cultural heritage and childhood, as John DeVore wrote in his achingly beautiful essay "Finding Home in Taco Bell." 

Additionally, there's something to be said for introducing people to new-to-them flavors in a way where there is a low barrier to entry, but the point remains that there was nothing particularly "Szechuan" about McDonald's sauce. It was a sweet and sticky mixture with just enough spice and umami — from the tiny (less than 2%, per the packet) additions of soy, sesame seed oil and ginger — to differentiate it from the chain's sweet and sour and BBQ dipping sauces. Pleasant enough, but no one rioted when the sauce exited menus after about a month, coinciding with the end of the "Mulan" promotion. 

The world moved on, chomping on Kardashian-endorsed Mandarin Chicken salads — another Americanized invention, Su-Jit Lin said, as salad is a "distinctly non-Chinese" food — and Sriracha (which "Saucy" will inevitably dig into) went on to reign supreme in the realm of condiments. 

But then, the third season of the adult animated show "Rick and Morty" debuted in April 2017. In the first episode, "The Rickshank Redemption," one of the series' main protagonists, Rick Sanchez, revisits a memory of going to a McDonald's drive-thru and ordering chicken McNuggets with Szechuan sauce. By the end of the episode, Rick reveals that his only goal in life is to find more of the sauce. He's not motivated by saving the world or his family — or, well, anything other than "that McNugget sauce. I want that 'Mulan' McNugget sauce, Morty. That's my series arc, Morty! If it takes nine seasons!" 

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It's a really funny moment in the series, because as mentioned above, Szechuan Sauce wasn't overwhelmingly popular upon its initial release. All things considered, it was out for such a short period of time that opportunities to even try it were pretty limited. Here's a character that will obsessively bend space and time to get his hands on a dipping sauce that was just . . . fine. 

But our culture's collective nostalgia machine, which had already been primed by "Stranger Things" and "the second coming of Lisa Frank," kicked into high-gear. A lot of people in the "Rick and Morty" target demographic had hazy memories of Szechuan Sauce. Maybe it was better than they remembered? Or a culinary key to unlocking simpler, better times that mimicked the feeling of opening a Happy Meal? 

Fans took to Twitter and began requesting McDonald's to bring back Szechuan Sauce. Mickey D's acknowledged them by sending a "Ricky and Morty" creator Justin Roiland a four-pound jug of Szechuan Sauce found in "Dimension C-1998M is a dimension where it's always 1998. 1998 every day. No smartphones, no social media. It's a weird, scary place. But they've got Szechuan Sauce on the regular menu." 

Meanwhile, a Change.org petition asked McDonald's to bring back the sauce. "McDonald's Szechuan sauce is the best sauce known to man," wrote petition founder Josh Mingle. "It would be a tragedy for it to not come back to McDonald's." 

McDonald's officially announced it would revive the sauce for a one-day promotion with a limited supply. It would took place on Oct. 7, 2017, and it was an unmitigated disaster. As Eater described, some locations were only armed — in the face of hundreds of customers — with 20 sauce packets, 10 posters, and a raffle system. Chaos broke out as "Rick and Morty" fans clamored to get a slot in line. Police were called, and there were a lot of angry customers. 

The company soon released a public apology, admitting that its super-limited, though well-intentioned batch clearly wasn't near enough to meet the demand of eager fans. 

"So, we're gonna make this right," the statement read. "In the last 24 hours, we've worked to open any portal necessary. And it worked. Szechuan Sauce is coming back once again this winter. And instead of being a one-day-only and limited to select restaurants, we're bringing more – a lot more – so that any fan who's willing to do whatever it takes for Szechuan Sauce will only have to ask for it at a nearby McDonald's." 

In February 2018, McDonald's officially revived the sauce, with an estimated 20 million portions distributed to locations across the U.S. But the reviews of the sauce were mixed. Eater described it as tasting "mainly like corn syrup with maybe a tiny bit of Worcestershire thrown in," while Business Insider said it was like "if you took a classic suburban American Chinese restaurant's sweet-and-sour chicken and mixed it with some soy sauce and maybe a hint of sesame." 

Some fans reported being disappointed that the sauce didn't measure up to how they remembered — or live up to the hype. "Ultimately, Szechuan sauce was about 'Rick and Morty'— not the taste of the sauce itself," as Business Insider pointed out.

This points to one of the most fascinating elements of the condiment. It's part of the McDonald's mythos, and it stems from an American institution that can both drive and be driven by pop culture. But fast food has a hard time grappling with trendiness. As Adam Chandler put it, fast food restaurants so often serve as an indicator of what constitutes "mainstream" at a given time. 

"Fast food is not cutting edge. It will never be cutting edge," he said. "I like to describe it as having a kind of 20/30 vision. When something ends up in a fast food restaurant, that is when it has appeared in several places before; it's been tested and vetted." 

McDonald's Szechuan Sauce was never going to be truly ground-breaking, nor was it likely ever really meant to be. It's a sticky-sweet culinary meme with a complicated past and an unexpectedly long shelf-life — one that's rivaled by the literal shelf-life of Szechuan Sauce itself. After all, packets from the '90s still occasionally pop up on eBay. 

What's a good at-home substitute for McDonald's Szechuan sauce? 

OK, so let's say you (reasonably) don't want to shell out hundreds of dollars for a little packet of eBay Szechuan Sauce. You have a couple of options, including one of the most popular at-home copycat recipes came from Reddit user Xeropoint. He cautions that it's "not identical to McD's version, it's more of a tribute." But it took off online and was even featured in an episode of a viral episode of the YouTube cooking program "Binging with Babish." 

I tried it out, and it's pretty good (if more flavorful than the actual stuff from McDonald's). 

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Recipe: Xeropoint's Copycat Szechuan Sauce
Approximately 1/4 cup of sauce 

  • 6 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 4 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar
  • Soy sauce to taste (I use 2 tablespoons)
  • 2 tablespoons of plum sake 
  • 3 1/2 tablespoons Sriracha 
  • 2  tablespoons of brown sugar 
  • Red pepper flakes to taste 
  • Minced ginger to taste (I use 1 tablespoon)

1. Place all the ingredients in a small saucepan, and stir over medium heat until the brown sugar is fully dissolved and the sauce has thickened slightly. Remove from heat, and allow it to cool. This sauce is good for up to two weeks stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator. 

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If home cooks want to really experiment with Szechuan flavors at home, Lydia Chang, the chief of business development Q by Peter Chang, a Bethesda-based Szechuan restaurant, would actually recommend a dry seasoning. 

"Mala spice being spicy or five spice which is mild," Chang said. "Mala spice uses ingredients, such as numbing peppercorn, red chili powder, chili oil, cilantro, scallion. The five spice seasoning has white pepper, Chinese cinnamon, sugar, salt, mushroom powder and more." 

"If someone likes something saucy, Kung Pao is a great pairing and easy to make at home," she added. "We typically make Kung Pao sauce with Maggi, Chinese vinegar, dark soy, sugar, shaoxing wine, white pepper, and sugar with chopped peanuts to finish."

Zack Ren is the marketing manager at New York City's Crop Circle, a restaurant that focuses on Szechuan Guokui. He would also encourage home cooks to purchase Red Chili Oil (which, like Sriracha, deserves a column all its own). 

"Red Chili Oil is a universal sauce used in Chinese restaurants and families," Ren said. "We use house-made chili, and our secret is to pour hot oil over Szechuan crushed chili flakes which stimulates extra aromatics. It has a magical ability to elevate everything. At home, I usually have a jar of Lao Gan Ma chili oil in my fridge." 

It's one suggestion which McDonald's has already implemented. Earlier this month, many of the company's Chinese locations launched a "spicy chilli oil ice cream sundae," which is exactly what it sounds like: vanilla-flavored soft serve doused generously with chilli oil. As Adam Chandler noted, once something reaches McDonald's, it's already pretty mainstream: In 2018, dessert shops in Sichuan starting posting images of creamy white ice cream flecked with deep red chili oil

It's a limited-edition menu item that hasn't reached stateside McDonald's, but you can make your own version at home. Pull up to the McDonald's drive-thru, and order a vanilla soft-serve. Then pull some chili oil out of your purse — I like Fly By Jing's Sichuan Chili Crisp — and give it a drizzle. You won't miss the Szechuan Sauce.


Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is a staff writer at Salon, specializing in culture and food.

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