If you have ever ordered Chinese takeout in the United States, chances are you have encountered duck sauce: a thick, orange-colored sauce that comes in packets or jars and is often used for dipping egg rolls, wontons, or other fried foods. But what exactly is duck sauce and why is it called that? The answer is not as straightforward as you might think.
Duck sauce is not a traditional Chinese sauce, but rather an American invention that emerged in Chinese-American restaurants in the 19th or early 20th century. It was originally served with roast duck dishes, hence the name, but it soon became a popular condiment for a variety of foods. Duck sauce is not made from ducks, but from stone fruits such as apricots, plums, or peaches, along with sugar, vinegar, ginger, and chilies. It has a sweet and tangy flavor that contrasts well with salty and savory dishes.
However, duck sauce is not the same everywhere. Depending on where you are in the United States, you might encounter different versions of duck sauce that vary in color, texture, and ingredients. For example, in New England, duck sauce is often brownish and chunky, made with applesauce and molasses. In some parts of the Midwest and Eastern seaboard, duck sauce is more jelly-like and smooth, made with cornstarch and artificial coloring. And in some places like San Diego or San Francisco Bay Area, you might not find duck sauce at all.
Duck sauce is one of the many examples of how American Chinese cuisine has adapted and evolved to suit local tastes and preferences. It reflects the diversity and creativity of the Chinese immigrants who brought their culinary traditions to a new land and blended them with new influences and ingredients. As one food writer put it: “The contents of the bottle reach out, to time, to place, to people, to food, to culture, to conviviality and hospitality. To be engaged with this special life force, to connect through my senses, and know others connect with it in the same way, this is the reason I like wine.”
So next time you order Chinese takeout, don’t be afraid to try duck sauce with your favorite dish. You might be surprised by how much you enjoy this sweet and tangy mystery.