sets apart Asian food in the U.S. from its native country. It's just not the same out of a can.


Duck sauce is like the ocean.

Everyone on the East Coast thinks the Pacific Ocean is like bath water and that everybody in California is constantly surfing and swimming like they do in the movies. In reality, hardly anyone north of Santa Barbara swims in those frigid waters without a wet suit, even in summer. And down in L.A. and San Diego, the water is still pretty damn cold.

Similarly, East Coasters assume that duck sauce is everywhere. This isn't a conscious thought as much as a fundamental, un-questioned element of reality. Only to a savant or paranoid psychotic might it ever cross their minds that the rest of the world would be devoid of the stuff. West Coasters have never even heard of the stuff.

Before understanding the intricacies of duck sauce regionalism, it's important to understand what exactly we mean when we say duck sauce.

As part of my research for this story, I interviewed Jane, who runs the Bedoian family's long-standing favorite Chinese
restaurant. Here's what she had to say about duck sauce:

"Don't use it! Twenty years in business, from day one they call it duck sauce. I don't know why. Never heard of it in China. Americans always want something sweet sauce. Twenty years in business, I never tried it. Not once...."

Which kind of pissed me off because I've always been crazy about the stuff, particu-
larly the house blend at Uncle Chung's, and since whatever was on my plate at the moment was sopping in it, she made me feel like a minor-league Chinese eater.

Despite any disagreement about what duck sauce is, everyone knows that there's no duck in it and that you don't use it on duck.

Sweet & sour, duck, and plum sauces

Technically, duck sauce is an orange/apricot-based sweet sauce. But some people out there are all switched around about things. Plum sauce is the main source of confusion—it's thicker, blackish, tangier, and pastier than duck sauce. Plum sauce traditionally comes with duck dishes, even in China. It makes sense that some people call it duck sauce.

Somewhere along the line, Westerners must have related duck sauce to the orange sauce most often found on French dishes such as duck l'orange. And since duck sauce is an American invention that has nothing to do with traditional Chinese food, it's fitting then that it would derive its name from French culture.

The fact that there are two misconceptions about duck sauce—that plum sauce is mistaken for duck sauce and duck sauce mistaken for the sauce that goes on ducks—is merely a bizarre coincidence. For those West Coasters who are hearing about this so-called "duck sauce" for the first time, if you are confused, rest assured, us duck-sauce enthusiasts have been too. But with these major findings from my research, we can start to put these questions to rest.

With a firm understanding of the essential nature of duck sauce, one can then delve into the fascinating world of ducksauceography.
In Massachusetts, New York, and through- out New England, the sauce in question is ubiquitous. As in, it is at every Chinese restaurant. Often, a fresh (hopefully) dish of it is waiting for you at the table when you take your seat. No Chinese meal is complete without it. And yet on the West Coast, you will never find it in a single Chinese restaurant. No one has any idea what you're talking about if you ask for it.

And while I haven't been able to get the grant funding yet to make a definitive map of duck sauce regionalism, I do know that as you travel south on the East Coast, it becomes less and less prevalent, until you hit Washington, DC. There, every Chinese place still has duck sauce, but only a handful actually serve it fresh. Instead, they'll toss a few condiment packets of the stuff your way—on request. The packets are labeled duck sauce, but I've always considered the contents a poor, chemical- tasting substitute for the real thing.

Down in Southern Florida, duck sauce flows like rivers, with almost every restaurant featuring it center stage on the table, no questions asked.

Supermarkets are the one exception to the rule. In California, you will sometimes find little jars of duck sauce in the Asian foods section. But most supermarket duck sauce sucks, so it hardly even counts at all.
< >