McDonald’s finally brings its ‘authentic’ Szechuan sauce to China. They’re not lovin’ it

Americans went crazy online and queued for hours to get their hands on the ‘Sichuan-style’ dip. People in China asked: ‘what on earth is this?’

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 March, 2018, 3:22pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 April, 2018, 6:21pm

McDonald’s has “brought back” to China the Szechuan sauce that caused a frenzy in America last year – and the reaction has not been warm.

While Americans went crazy when the product was re-released after 20 years, with reports of long queues and outbreaks of disorder, in China most people were baffled. 

The product was first released in 1998 as part of the promotional tie-in for the Disney film Mulan, which was based on a Chinese legend. 

But when an episode of the hugely popular US time-travel cartoon Rick and Morty referred to the sauce, it triggered a sort of collective nostalgia among fans, who began a frenzied internet campaign demanding its return. 

The fast-food chain promised America fans it would issue a limited edition of the chicken McNugget accompaniment, supposedly inspired by Sichuan cuisine, but the difficulty many experienced getting hold of a sachet only served to fuel the hype.  

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Many McDonald’s franchises reported people queuing for hours. Some angry customers staged protests outside franchises that had sold out and in some cases the police needed to be called to keep order. There were even reports that a 20-year-old packet of the sauce had been sold for US$14,700 on eBay.

As a result of the frenzy the fast-food giant has decided to offer it to customers on the Chinese mainland for the first time in a promotion that will run until April 17.

Although the sauce is supposedly inspired by the spicy cuisine of the southwestern province that was formerly known as Szechuan, Chinese customers struggled to find anything recognisably Sichuanese about it – not least because it lacked the chillies that are a vital element of the local cuisine.

A Beijing-based reporter for the China news portal Inkstone concluded it had nothing to do with Sichuan cuisine, describing it as “very sweet, a little sour and saltier than other sauces”.

Shanghai-based Xinmin Evening News, shared the general consensus that the lack of chilli was fatal to any claims it might make at authenticity, but concluded: “To name it as Szechuan sauce was just a way for foreigners to describe a Chinese taste.”

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Many social media users agreed with the verdict. 

Comments on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, ranged from one user who described it as “not that bad, but it felt like sweet chilli sauce mixed with a strong soybean smell”, to others who compared it to a ginger syrup, but “not spicy at all” or “enriched BBQ sauce mixed with black pepper”.

The tech news website Abacus reported similar reactions on social media, including one person who asked: “Do Americans not understand chilli sauce? This tastes like soy sauce.”

Another introduced a topical note by saying: “I suggest China and the US make this a key point when they talk about intellectual property.”

None of this may come as much of a surprise to those familiar with the difference between the food served in many Chinese restaurants in the West and what is served in China, but the names McDonald’s used to market their product would have provided plenty of clues. Its official name in the US – “Mulan Szechuan teriyaki dipping sauce” – indiscriminately mixes Japanese and Chinese elements and some tasters may think it more akin to a teriyaki.  

In China, however, it downplayed its supposed origins in favour of its online popularity and marketed it simply as “internet famous sauce”.