WARNING: This post is quite lengthy. Please be patient and read everything.
Recent news on social media has it that McDonald’s just re-introduced its legendary ‘Szechuan Sauce’ for only a day, well, it really wasn’t that legendary until Rick and Morty—the (rather overrated) cartoon TV show—brought it back to life.
Unfortunately, it looks like the global multinational fast-food chain has quickly ran out of its supply of magic sauce for all those Rick and Morty die-hards. How sad. One can even feel the hot-headed rage from the ocean of salty tweets about how X didn’t get their limited edition Szechuan Sauce.
You see, I find all of this rather funny and ironic. It could be simply because I don’t watch Rick & Morty so I don’t get the reference, but there’s more to the story. R&M fans are so critically engaged in criticizing McDonald’s for not bringing them enough Szechuan Sauce, yet the irony here is that these folks are begging for a sauce that they probably don’t even know what it tastes like.
FYI, “Szechuan” is a rather archaic romanticized form of Chinese for 四川 (Sichuan), which is the name of a province situated in southwest China.
Even though my ethnicity is Chinese, I do not have too much knowledge on Chinese culture, but my best guess is that McDonald’s Szechuan sauce is some sort of take on replicating the flavors of Sichuan cuisine…
I had some sort of doubt that McDonald’s would actually use real Sichuan sauce that the people living in the province of Sichuan would use. So I did some little researching and found two recipes regarding Sichuan sauce: one pertaining to the ingredients of McDonald’s Sichuan sauce, and one that actually cared enough to include “Chinese” and “Sichuan” (instead of Szechuan) in their title.
The difference between the two sources of recipes is stupidly simple: the former recipe article always has some sort of reference to Rick & Morty while the latter has none.
And as I expected, the two recipes could not be anymore different with the ingredients they’ve used. I won’t go into full details, but the key difference is that the McD recipe uses plum sauce as their main ingredient while the “authentic” recipe uses Sichuan chili peppers. You know what, I’ll also throw in a recipe source from an actual Chinese site, and if you translate it you’ll clearly see that it lists “Little red pepper” as its ingredient; no plum sauce or any of the ingredients found in the McD recipe. Now isn’t that fishy…
Clearly McDonald’s had no knowledge or understanding of real Sichuan sauce, and simply used its name to convey western notions of East Asian culture. This is cultural appropriation at its finest.
While further delving deeper into this subject, I found that the main reason for McDonald’s to introduce Szechuan sauce was not just to bring some (not really) new flavors, but rather they had an agenda in mind, a rather capitalistic one I might add. It all started in 1998 when The Walt Disney Company released their animated feature film Mulan.
I can even imagine how this ridiculous idea was planned at McDonald’s HQ:
- Head of Marketing: “Disney just released their Mulan film, a kids cartoon about Chinese people, so why not sell some Chinese sauce along with those Mulan toys to gain some of that capital?”
- Staff 1: “Good idea boss! You should name it Szechuan sauce because it sounds so Asian hehe”
- Staff 2: “And add lots of plum sauce too because that’s how American people think of Chinese sauces anyways.”
- Head of Marketing: “Great idea Staff 1 and Staff 2! Remind me to double your payroll.”
I could also go into deeper detail on how this McDonald’s “Mulan” Szechuan Sauce Commercial perfectly conveys inferential racism and how it just screams at you with obvious signifiers of cultural appropriation, but I’ll just leave it here since this post is getting a bit too lengthy.
Overall I am trying to convey three points here:
- That the [average person]/[mass audience] in western society has no clear knowledge whatsoever about foreign cultures, and how the masses can easily be duped into believing a false set of beliefs towards foreign cultures just from a mere signifier (signifer 1 = Szechuan = some Asian word; signifer 2 = sauce; signified = a sauce that originated from Asia or that has an Asian flavor)
- That American businesses and corporations—even the biggest players—will borrow elements from cultures without fully understanding the historical or cultural context first.
- That pop culture TV shows such as Rick and Morty gives us a sense of false consciousness, so that we look upon at the elements of our world in a rather distorted way. Because of this, we often lose awareness of the real cultural and historical contexts of an entity (which is Szechuan sauce in this context).
While I was mostly raised up in Canada, I strongly identify by my Chinese ethnicity and seeing so many people talk about Szechuan sauce without accepting its cultural context has inspired me to write this.