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Does China Care About the Arrival of Rick and Morty Szechuan Sauce?

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In a grand and bizarre instance of cultural diffusion, McDonald’s legendary “Szechuan Sauce” has arrived in outlets across China – including in Sichuan.

The sauce was originally launched in the late ’90s as part of promotions for Disney flick Mulan. It found itself back in the spotlight in 2017 after it was featured prominently in runaway cult cartoon hit Rick and Morty. If you’re lame and don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s the clip:

In response, the US McDonald’s did a limited one day re-release of the sauce in October that year. But they vastly underestimated the passion, fire, and sheer size of the Rick and Morty fan base. Restaurants across the country ran out of the sauce, causing disappointed would-be-saucers to take to the streets in protest. The backlash forced McDonald’s to reintroduce the sauce on a wider basis earlier this year, and the shockwaves of American fast food discontent reverberated across the world.

This news was how China first got wind of the sauce, which takes its name from the old Wade-Giles romanization of the western Chinese province of Sichuan. It’s also why, this morning, on the day of its unveiling in mainland China, I found myself in line at a Shanghai McDonald’s on Changshou Lu.

It was bustling – were people all here for the Szechuan sauce? It took a while to get to the front of the line.

Large fries please, and nuggets with the sauce.

The employee gestured to a tandem special, three sauces (the fabled “Szechuan”, a sweet and sour number, and a gong bao/kung pao offering) and 20 chicken nuggets for 30RMB, which is around the price of a full-on cheeseburger meal with fries and a drink. McDonald’s was obviously trying to squeeze everything they could out of this promotion. I told her no, just the regular five nuggets and the Szechuan.

Have a lot of people been coming for the sauce, I asked

I don’t know, she told me. It just came out today.

Well have a lot of people been ordering it today?

She shrugged. Not really, it seemed.

With my food in hand, I hunted for unsuspecting local sauce-eaters who were just trying to enjoy a meal. I spotted three young dudes dressed in reasonably stylish athletic wear.

Hi there. I know this is weird, but can I ask you guys a couple questions?

About the sauce?

Yes. How do you like it?

I like it!

Is it the authentic Sichuan flavor?

It’s a little spicy, his friend weighed in (for context, Sichuan province is known above all else for their numbing, spicy food).

Is this the first you’ve heard of the sauce?

No, we’ve heard about it before. This sauce is an American internet celebrity. His friends nodded in agreement.

Will you order it again next time?

Oh yeah, we’ll definitely order it again.

A diner opts not to try to Szechuan sauce promotion advertised on top. He’s also using his middle finger to click on things, which is mad weird.

They seemed genuinely positive and I thanked them for allowing me to intrude on their meal. I scoped out my next target, a young professional lady eating with coworkers.

How do you feel about the sauce?

It’s alright.

Next time you come, will you order it again?

I think I like the original sweet and sour flavor more…

Is this the authentic Sichuan flavor?

I don’t know, I’ve never been to Sichuan.

Is this the first you’ve heard of the sauce?

Yes.

Her eyes told me to get lost, so I did. I ran up on two college-aged girls.

How do you like the sauce?

It’s not bad.

And you?

It’s not bad.

Is this the authentic Sichuan flavor?

I guess sort of. It’s spicy?

Is this the first you’ve heard of the sauce?

America used to have this sauce right?

Will you eat it again next time?

Uh…yeah.

I wasn’t convinced. I thanked them and asked a nearby McDonald’s employee, Lu Hao, for the scoop.

Hey! Are a lot of people here for the new sauce?

Yeah. A lot of people here today, I guess people want to try the famous sauce from the internet.

Is it the authentic Sichuan flavor???

Kind of. It’s spicy and sweet, but I haven’t tried it.

How’d you first hear about the sauce?

Online. Just scrolling through my newsfeed.

Have you ever seen a TV show called Rick and Morty?

No.

Are those real, authentic Sichuan peppercorns? Err, unlikely.

I found two other employees wearing higher-rank uniforms.

Is there a manager here?

We’re both managers.

I need to ask you some questions.

Wait what?

It’s about the sauce.

Are you a reporter?

I’m afraid that won’t work. You’ll need to talk to a regional district manager for that. But I can get you a phone number — do you want a free coke while you wait?

I sucked down my free coke in discontent as I rolled around in the iron tumbler of Chinese bureaucracy. But it was a free coke. I realized it would be a great accompaniment to my Szechuan sauce and nuggets, which I still hadn’t eaten.

How was it? Delicious. Definitely the best dipping sauce at McDonald’s. I quietly judged the poor soul who had told me original Sweet and Sour was superior. The Szechuan sauce tasted like sugar, spice, memes, and the inverted cross-cultural bastardization of authentic Chinese cuisine.

I asked Sichuan-based Canadian Ryan Friesen of Chengdu Food Tours for his verdict over WeChat:

The sauce should be called “anything-but-Sichuan sauce.” It’s very sweet and tangy, totally unlike the typical numbing and spicy flavor of Sichuan food. It reminds me more of cheap Chinese take out food from back home. But I gotta say, being North American, I’m kinda into it.

Sichuanese foodie Anita Lai, a partner in Chengdu Food Tours, agrees that the sauce bears little resemblance to any actual Sichuan cuisine:

My first impression was ”wow it’s sour”. A bit sweet at the same time, more like an American bbq sauce. No chilli detected, nor Sichuan peppercorn. I mean it’s a good sauce for nuggets, but it’s got nothing to do with Sichuan!

Back in Shanghai, the regional district manager never answered any of my calls, texts, or WeChat messages (I’ll be looking for you, Viviana). Maybe she’d heard that I’d already torn through one of her local outlets, leaving in my wake a trail of confusion and mild annoyance.

So how do Chinese diners feel about the sauce? They seem pretty ambivalent. If anything, they’re excited to try something they’ve read about online. But when we really get down to it, isn’t that why we’re all here, in this McDonald’s limited-run Szechuan sauce line we call life? To try some famous sauce from Rick and Morty?

If local McDonald’s fans start chanting “we want sauce” in the streets, or if Viviana responds to any of my calls, we’ll update you here. But neither is likely.

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Adan Kohnhorst
Adan Kohnhorst is a Shanghai-based writer, producer, and multimedia artist, and the Associate Editor at RADII. His work has been featured in publications such as Maxim and the Chinese-language StreetVoice, and he’s an active member of the hip-hop and DIY music scenes in Shanghai, NYC, and Dallas. He learned Mandarin in high school so he could train at the Shaolin Temple, but now just uses it to interview rappers.