In a joint promotion for the original animated feature, McDonald’s released a condiment called SzeChuan sauce for a limited time.
Hong Kong-born Kevin Pang, who was raised in the United States, remembers it well from his teenage days.
“It tasted very much like American Chinese food, it was too sweet. The texture was very gloopy, very sticky, and I think it was a little bit too out there for an American audience. If you eat chicken nuggets, you have barbecue sauce, you have hot mustard, but you don’t have this vaguely Asian style sauce. It was a novelty,” recalls Pang.
Interest in the sauce soon dissipated and it was forgotten until 2017, when an episode of cartoon show?Rick and Morty?– which featured a mad scientist and his adventures with his grandson – mentioned the SzeChuan sauce.
However, on the day, the fast-food chain was completely unprepared for the onslaught of people who turned up to get their hands on the sweet, Asian-style sauce.
Each McDonald’s only had two dozen packs of the sauce to give away, and customers who had queued for hours were very angry, shouting: “We want sauce!” At one outlet in Newark, in the American state of New Jersey, the police had to be called in to calm things down.
Sachets of the sauce have appeared on eBay selling for up to $250 each.
However, the sauce created by McDonald’s lacks any authentic Sichuan flavor. Sadly for fans of the too-sweet McDonald’s sauce, there is no such thing as a generic “Sichuan sauce” in the Chinese province, says cook and food writer Fuchsia Dunlop.
“A really good Sichuan meal is like a roller-coaster ride – you have spicy notes, sweet and sour notes, numbing and gentle flavors,” says the British cook who has been researching Chinese cuisine for 25 years. That’s a far cry from what McDonald’s was trying to emulate.
Sichuan cuisine is one of the eight great cuisines of China and is famous for its fiery dishes. But Dunlop says it’s a common misconception that the cuisine focuses only on heat.
“There’s the stereotype that it is all just fiery and hot, and of course Sichuanese love using chillies and Sichuan pepper (hua jiao) – with its lip tingling sensation – but that’s just one part of the story. Sichuan is about complex multilayered flavors,”she says.
“The really interesting thing about Sichuan cuisine is its diversity of flavors. When I was studying to be a chef there, we learned 23 complex flavors. It is like French classic sauces, but with different balances of sweet, sour, spicy and tingly,” she says.
While Sichuan is one of the most popular regional cuisines in China, it only really caught on in the West 20 years ago, says Dunlop. “From the 1990s Sichuan food took off – you had all these people from all over China going to live in America and England and they wanted to eat their favorite food, which was Sichuan food.”
Currently Sichuan hotpot is a hugely popular dish in China and the West, but Dunlop says dishes such as mapo tofu, gong bao chicken, and hui guo rou (twice-cooked pork) are all famous and express the techniques and flavors of Sichuan cooking.
In Hong Kong, a cultural and culinary crossroads of the East and West, chef Kenny Chan Kai-tak, 65, is keen on passing down how to cook Sichuan cuisine. The executive chef at Sichuan Lab in Wan Chai was born in Hong Kong to a family of chefs originally from Sichuan.
He finds the fiery cuisine more difficult to learn how to cook because of the various combinations of chillies that can be used to elicit layers of spice.
“Sichuan cuisine allows your taste buds and the tip of your tongue to feel a ‘dancing sensation’. But not all Sichuan food is spicy – it can have surprisingly different kinds of spice, some that are mild, some that are extra hot, and their aroma can change depending on if they are cooked with meat or seafood. A spice that seems to be light in taste can have a very long, but strong aftertaste that hits you hard,” Chan says.
"Only one-third of Sichuan cuisine has spiciness in it. The reason why Sichuan food has varying levels of spice is because the province’s food is a mix of culinary styles, as immigrants from neighboring provinces brought different eating habits and cultures,” Chan says.