Earlier this month in T magazine Ligaya Mishan wrote about the history of vanilla. Specifically, Mishan’s article explored how a rich, earthy, “almost unruly” flavor harvested from the finicky vanilla orchid became associated with blandness. It seems ridiculous when you think about it, vanilla becoming a stand-in for something so pervasive you barely even notice it. But this is how food trends go: the “discovery,” the demand, and ultimately the diffusion and normalization of what was once exotic. We’ve seen it not just with vanilla, but with “pumpkin spice,” ube, sriracha, and truffle. And now it’s happening with sichuan peppercorn.
McDonald’s announced this week that it will be releasing two new sauces: Mambo Sauce, a tomato-and-vinegar mixture based on the popular Washington, D.C. condiment, and a Sweet & Spicy Jam Sauce, which it describes as “a jammy red pepper sauce with a tongue-numbing Szechuan peppercorn kick.” In a press release, McDonald’s chief marketing and customer experience officer Tariq Hassan says: “We get inspiration for the food our fans love by exploring the incredible tastes and flavors found in communities across the country,” and that the two new offerings are “bringing the delicious spice, sweetness and kick of heat we know today’s customers are craving.”
The Sweet & Spicy Jam is mostly sugar, corn syrup, and apple cider vinegar; it contains less than two percent of “Natural Szechuan Pepper Extract.” But its presence at all is notable. Even when McDonald’s launched its Rick & Morty “Szechuan sauce” (their spelling) to much mania in 2017, “Szechuan” was used to vaguely gesture at Chineseness. It was “Szechuan” sauce, not Sichuan peppercorn sauce. But the fact that America’s largest chain restaurant now considers “Sichuan peppercorn” specifically a safe enough flavor to name on the menu at all is proof its journey into the mainstream is complete.
One of the biggest reasons Sichuan peppercorn has grown in popularity in the U.S. is that we can actually get it now. The spice was illegal to import until 2005, as there was worry a disease it was known to carry could threaten American citrus plants. Some restaurants got it illegally, but the lifting of the law made the ingredient far more accessible. As a result, Sichuan cuisine exploded in the U.S. Xi’an Famous Foods opened in 2005, Mission Street Food in 2008, Cafe China in 2011, Chengdu Taste in 2013, and Málà Project in 2016, the same year the New York Times declared Sichuan cuisine was “conquering the world.”
The trademark numbing tingle of the Sichuan peppercorn has also broken out from Sichuan cuisine. It’s a major component of chile crisp, which has blown up in its own way, and which consumers are encouraged to drizzle on distinctly non-Sichuan dishes like pizza and ice cream. It’s a crust on beef jerky and popcorn. Brooklyn pie shop Four and Twenty Blackbirds once offered chocolate chess pie with Sichuan peppercorn. At Lost Lake in Chicago, it’s infused into simple syrup for cocktails.
So of course, the flavor trickled up to fast food, just like Sriracha and hot honey before it. Instead of evoking something new or familiar, depending on the customer, it could just be, like vanilla, there. There will be no mistaking the McDonald’s sauce for the kick and tingle of actual Sichuan peppercorn, but that was never the point. And honestly, a spicy McMuffin sounds good.