After a 19-year period of obscurity, McDonald’s Szechuan sauce was thrust back into the cultural spotlight after being featured in the Rick and Morty Season 3 premiere on April 1. New and old fans of the sauce, which originally graced McDonald’s menus when Disney’s Mulan premiered in 1998, noted that the upcoming release of the live-action remake of the beloved animated film would present the perfect opportunity to bring the sauce back.
But doing so would be a mistake.
In fact, rolling out Szechuan sauce with the original Mulan was itself problematic, though critics were less aware, then, of how the film collapsed millennia of complex Chinese history and culture into a flat, oversimplified pastiche. Maybe they just cared less. Either way, it’s not surprising that the country’s elaborate cuisine and varied flavor profiles were likewise distilled into that catch-all sweet-spicy-sour Chinese condiment — the aforementioned Szechuan sauce — and served up alongside all-American chicken McNuggets.
Clamoring for the simultaneous release of Szechuan sauce and a film inspired by a sixth-century Chinese folktale is the same as asking for Mickey D’s to serve up a rich Hollandaise or Béarnaise in honor of the quintessentially French Beauty and the Beast. Delicious as that situation might be, it has nothing to do with the roots of the legend it purports to celebrate. French cuisine is lauded for its geographical nuances (Normandy gave birth to Hollandaise, while Béarnaise is Parisian; three other French “mother sauces” exist), and reducing it into a single flavor profile would be viewed as disrespectful by home cooks and connoisseurs alike. Because it is.
The same goes for thinking Szechuan sauce could represent all of China — Sichuan (the traditional spelling) is just one of the country’s 34 provinces — but it’s obvious that this instance of cultural and culinary reductionism doesn’t seem to hold as much weight. It’s not hard to imagine why.
A similarly awkward situation arose in an article on the culinary website Food52 in which an Indian cook was asked to distill Indian cuisine into its mother sauces. “To impose a Western-centric framework on Indian cuisine is a gross simplification, since Indian cuisine has hundreds of sub-cuisines … and none of those variations really have sauces, per se,” Pooja Makhijani wrote in March. Equating Mulan’s China with a single sauce is, arguably, an even grosser simplification, but one that’s likewise tailored for Western thought (and taste).
But the good thing about Rick and Morty bringing attention to the condiment is that it forces Westerners to ask: What is Szechuan sauce, anyway? That’s like asking an American what Southern sauce is — it isn’t anything. Sichuan province (which actually wasn’t recognized formally until the year 1286, well after Hua Mulan), with its spice-filled complex flavor profiles that include gustatory sensations like tingling numbness from Sichuan peppercorns and fiery heat from New World chilis, has a number of sauces, none of which are singularly representative of the region.
Nobody’s really sure what went into the Szechuan sauce formulated by McDonald’s, but amateur chefs who have attempted to recreate it at home remember it being sugary sweet, salty with soy sauce, and tangy with rice wine vinegar or sake. One theory, popularized on “Binging with Babish,” a cooking series that recreates food featured in pop culture, is that McDonald’s simply mixed two parts of its classic sweet and sour sauce with one part of its barbecue sauce. The flavors present are elements of general Asian cooking, sure, but there’s nothing especially Chinese or Sichuan-style about it. Its spiciness level, if it had one at all, was likely extremely tepid — the exact opposite of what you’d find in Sichuan cuisine, which developed its characteristic spiciness because traditional medicine advocated spicy foods to balance the region’s cold, damp winters.
That said, the bottle of “Szechuan sauce” you pick up at your local grocery will probably taste more like the McDonald’s sauce than any sauce from Sichuan. Likewise, Trader Joe’s will sell you Szechuan-Style Spicy Beef and Broccoli (pair it with Cantonese-Style dim sum for a nice “trans-national Chinese meal,” the chain suggests. And that’s fine: Over the decades since Chinese immigrants first arrived in the United States, American-Chinese food has become a unique genre of cuisine, one that gave birth to and lends not authenticity but rather legitimacy to McDonald’s Szechuan sauce.
The problem is, there’s nothing American-Chinese about Mulan, a legendary girl who grew up in China centuries before America even existed.
Rick and Morty fans deserve to have their appetites for this now-mythical sauce sated, but not in relation to a live-action remake based on real Chinese folklore and cuture. Asian-Americans already suffer from consistently one-dimensional portrayals in the media and only rarely get the opportunity to educate others about the differences between entire Asian nations, let alone nuances within an individual culture. Ultimately, what the Szechuan sauce effect does is flatten cultures that Western society deems too complex, too other to consider more carefully, and Asians have too often fallen victim to that judgment.
While we’ve come a long way since Mulan, we unfortunately still live in an age where Scarlett Johansson is our best Japanese actress and Asian men are beat up on airplanes for no reason other than gross ignorance. There’s no telling whether McDonald’s will actually bring Szechuan sauce back, but the last thing Asian-Americans need is a sauce to obscure the diversity of their cultures in the same shade of faceless, nationless, Western-approved brown.