Thursday, January 7, 2021

The Origin of Chinese Duck Sauce: Did Boston "Invent" It?

If you dine at local Chinese restaurants, you’ve probably been served a container of duck sauce, a versatile sweet and sour sauce that is commonly used for dipping fried foods, from eggrolls to chicken fingers, fried wontons to crab rangoon. You might also pour some duck sauce on your fried rice or pork strips. If you order take-out, you might receive a small plastic tub of duck sauce or maybe you’ll get tiny plastic packets of duck sauce.

It has become such a familiar sauce that you can find it at non-Chinese restaurants too. For example, at sub shops and roast beef joints, it’s a common accompaniment for chicken fingers. At many general grocery stores, duck sauce is readily available for sale, and you don’t need to go to a specialty Chinese shop. The Chinese refer to "duck sauce" by various names, including so moue jeung, soo moy jung, su-moi-jung, soo-moy ding, and shuen moy jeung.

What is the origin of this curious sauce?

It doesn’t appear anyone can definitely provide its origin story, though theories abound, most believing it acquired its name in the U.S. Many believe the sauce was possibly plum or hoisin sauce, which was renamed "duck sauce" in the U.S. because the sauces were originally a Chinese accompaniment for duck. Some theories are more specific, stating duck sauce was originally the sauce used for Peking Duck. Americans allegedly loved Peking Duck, becoming familiar with this sauce, which was renamed to make it easier for them to  pronounce or understand. It's also possible that duck sauce was an American variation of plum or hoisin sauce. 

Let’s see if we can clear up some of the confusion, and locate more details of its possible origins. And could Chinese restaurants in Boston have been the first to use the term “duck sauce?”

Going back in history, we can see that plum sauce existed in the U.S., and not one based on the Chinese version. One of the earliest newspaper references was in the Buffalo Daily Republic (NY), August 29, 1849, where a family was poisoned by a plum sauce. A German silver spoon, which shouldn’t have been used, had stirred the plum sauce while it was cooking. The problem was that the mix of the silver spoon and a sour substances caused issues “as the arsenic, of which the ware is in part composed, is acted upon by the acid and dissolved, thus filling the substance with poison.

There were additional, albeit brief, mentions of plum sauces in the Marshall Statesman (Michigan), December 9, 1857, Wellsboro Agitator (PA), February 12, 1862, Ottowa Free Trader (Iowa), January 10, 1863, Brooklyn Daily Eagle (NY), January 11, 1869, and Logansport Pharos Tribune (IN), October 3, 1893. None of these references were connected to Chinese plum sauce.

One of the earliest references to Chinese plum sauce was in the Bloomington Leader (IL), January 29, 1894, in an article on the Chinese New Year. The article described a Chinese feast including “…dried mushrooms, shark’s fin, dried oysters in the shell with seaweed flavor, plum sauce, betel nuts, peanut oil which is used like olive oil, cuttle fish,..” Curiously, there was no mention of duck so maybe the plum sauce was also used for other dishes.

The Buffalo Evening News (NY), January 5, 1900, briefly mentioned a non-Chinese dinner menu that included Roast Wild Duck and plum sauce. So, some Americans were combining duck and plum sauce before the Chinese version became commonplace.

The San Francisco Call (CA), February 9, 1908, was the first newspaper to mention the specific uses of Chinese plum sauce, stating, “…sweet plum sauce, into which the Chinese dip their fish and meat,..” It obviously wasn’t restricted to using only for duck, and seemed to be a much more versatile and widely used sauce. Could plum sauce be the origin of "duck sauce?"

It’s fascinating that the first newspaper reference I found concerning Chinese “duck sauce” was in the Boston Herald, January 15, 1927. The paper mentioned a dinner at an unnamed Chinese restaurant on Hudson Street which served “sauces of soy, sauces of mustard and duck sauce.” Did the term “duck sauce” thus originate in Boston and spread from there?

Unfortunately, no details or explanation were provided on the nature of this duck sauce. It seemed that the article assumed people already knew about duck sauce. Was it a renamed plum sauce? Or hoisin sauce? Or was it a variation of one of these existing Chinese sauces?

Hoisin sauce is commonly used with Peking Duck, but it doesn’t seem a likely candidate for being “duck sauce.” From my prior history of Peking Duck, we know that Peking Duck was a rarity in the U.S. during the 1920s. It wasn’t until 1958 that the first Chinese restaurant in the Boston area served Peking Duck. So, it makes no sense that the duck sauce mentioned in Boston had anything to do with Peking duck. Nearly all of the Chinese restaurants established in the U.S. from the 19th century to the 1920s were Cantonese, and they didn’t serve Peking duck.

Peking Duck was originally created for the elite classes in the north of China while the Cantonese had their own version of roast duck, and it was popular with the common people. Cantonese roast duck was served in American restaurants, including in Boston’s Chinatown, at least as far back as the late 19th century. Plum sauce was used with Cantonese duck, so it seems a far more likely candidate for “duck sauce” than hoisin sauce.

In general, plum sauce was made from plums, sugar, vinegar, salt, and ginger but there were acceptable variations, which might include other fruits, like apricots, as well as garlic, soy sauce or other items. American Chinese restaurants might have purchased plum sauce from Chinese grocery stores, or they might have made their own, and their versions might differ from other such Chinese restaurants. So, "duck sauce" could easily be a variation of plum sauce. 

The next reference to “duck sauce” didn't appear until over eleven years later, in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (NY), September 19, 1938, which noted that Chinese foods were becoming popular. The article stated that “...another favored dish is barbecued roast pork in duck sauce served with white meat chicken balls, dipped in rice flour batter and fried with black and white mushrooms, pimientos, bamboo sprouts and water chestnuts.” Duck sauce with roast pork?

Although plum sauce was used with roast duck, it wasn’t restricted to that use. The Chinese also used plum sauce with roast meats, such as pork, and that obviously carried through in their American restaurants. In fact, in many later American newspaper references, duck sauce was more often mentioned in connection with roast or barbecued pork than with duck. It actually wouldn’t have surprised me if duck sauce had been called “pork sauce” instead, as Americans were using it for pork far more than duck. 

Returning to the theory that the name "duck sauce" originated in Boston's Chinatown,  we see that it appears to be the first documented reference of that term. Second, there wasn't another documented reference for another eleven years. Why was there such a lengthy gap? And that second reference was in New York, and it's easy to believe the term had spread from Boston to New York during that 11 year period. Other writers have though that the term probably originated on the East Coast as it seems far less prevalent on the West Coast, and a Boston origin fits in with that belief. This is all only circumstantial evidence, but it is persuasive in some respects, especially as there isn't any evidence to the contrary. . 

September 1938 also saw the publication of Cook at Home in Chinese by Henry Low (pictured above). Henry, with forty years of cooking experience in Chinese restaurants in the U.S., had been the head chef at the Port Arthur Chinese Restaurant at 7-9 Mott Street in New York City. He also may have been the inventor of the Egg Roll, the Tchun Guen (of which there is a recipe in his cookbook). During the 1930s, various newspapers stated Henry was the best Chinese cook in the country.

Low’s cookbook briefly mentioned “duck sauce” though it didn’t provide a recipe. The book stated, “Duck Sauce* (so moue jeung) A kind of chutney good with any kind of duck.” The asterisk mentioned it “May be bought at a Chinese grocery store.” So, it appears that "duck sauce" was the American name for a common Chinese ingredient and not the name for an American variation of a Chinese same. Only the name was different. Based on its Chinese name, this duck sauce also seems to be plum sauce. 

Interestingly, the book also mentioned, “Plum Sauce (hoy seen jeung) Nice to serve on plate with mustard. Good for everything.” However, the Chinese name refers to Hoisin sauce, and not what we usually think of as plum sauce. This is more evidence that duck sauce is not Hoisin sauce, or some variation of such.

During the 1940s, duck sauce started becoming mentioned a bit more. As I mentioned previously, it was being used primarily for other foods instead of duck. The Berkshire County Eagle (MA), May 8, 1940, printed an advertisement for The China Clipper restaurant which offered a dinner special, Barbecued Chinese Roast Pork with Duck Sauce, for 50 cents. Again, we see roast pork and duck sauce.

The Boston Globe, July 13, 1942, printed a request from a reader who was seeking a recipe for Chinese Duck Sauce. As we see, these early references are either from Massachusetts or New York. It wouldn’t be until the second half of the 1940s that duck sauce references seemed to arise from other regions. This lends some credence to the theory that the term "duck sauce" might have originated in Boston's Chinatown.

The Houston Chronicle (TX), January 20, 1946, also had a restaurant ad, which mentioned the dish Chin Kin, Crisp Egg Rolls with duck sauce. The ad states, “This is a delicacy that was impossible to prepare during war years due to lack of quality ingredients.” The Gazette (Montreal, Canada), October 8, 1947, wrote about a discussion with Chef Peter Wei, who worked at the local Ruby Foo restaurant, and he mentioned “Egg roll dipped in Chinese mustard and Chinese duck (plum) sauce...” Duck sauce in Canada? It makes sense as the Ruby Foo restaurants generally copied most of the menu items from the Boston location of Ruby Foo.

Another restaurant, also in Texas, advertised in the Gladewater Daily Mirror (TX), May 15, 1949, and their menu included “Chinese Roast Pork with Hot Mustard and Duck Sauce; Chinese Barbecued Spare Ribs, Hot Mustard, and Duck Sauce; Chinese Egg Roll with Hot Mustard, and Duck Sauce.” Once again, duck sauce was used for other dishes besides duck.

It would be in the 1950s when mentions of duck sauce seemed to explode across the country. The Minneapolis Star (MN), July 12, 1950, discussed a New York City Chinese restaurant where “Chinese delegates to the United Nations, who told me that the cold roast pork with duck sauce was as fine as that served in Peking.” The Johnson City Press (TN), September 27, 1951, stated that the “soy, oyster, duck and plum sauce produced here are said to equal the imported varieties in flavor.” This article differentiated between duck and plum sauce, although they might have meant hoisin sauce rather than plum sauce.

Back in Boston, the Boston Traveler, January 16, 1952, advertised about Ruby Foo’s Chinese foods, which included a new item, Chinese Duck Sauce. It was a “Sparkling new condiment for use on meats, fish, poultry” and sold for 59 cents for a 12 ounce container.

The first newspaper recipe for Duck Sauce also apparently appeared in the Boston Globe, February 6, 1952. The ingredients included consomme, onion, green pepper, mushroom, tomato, vinegar, sugar, soy sauce, ginger root, and broth. Other duck sauce recipes would appear in other newspapers, though this was a more unique recipe, unlike the others which would later be published. It was also mentioned in this Globe article that the Chinese serve duck sauce at their restaurants with pork or barbecued spareribs. Once again, its use with duck wasn't mentioned. 

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (NY), May 1, 1952, published an article mentioning that duck sauce is “frequently mixed with hot mustard to use with shrimp as well as other dishes.”

Also that year, a Chinese cookbook was published with a duck sauce recipe. The Chicago Tribune (IL), July 13, 1952, noted that The Chinese Cook Book, a new book by Wallace Yee Hong, contained a recipe for duck sauce. The recipe for Duck Sauce (Soo-Moy Ding) called for 4 cups fresh plums (skins and stones removed, mashed), 3 cups fresh or dried apricots, 2 cups apples, pears, pineapples, strawberries or peaches; 1 cup of vinegar, 2 cups of sugar, and 1 cup chopped pimentos. The recipe stated, “Note: Duck sauce is a kind of chutney, used especially for roast duck. It was used for pork in the old times. Now it is used for any kind of meat or salad, also with rice.

Another recipe was provided in the Boston Traveler, September 9, 1952, for “Plum or ‘Duck Sauce.’ The ingredients were very different from the earlier Boston Globe recipe. The ingredients included 1 cup plum jelly, ½ cup chutney, 1 tablespoon vinegar; and 1 tablespoon of sugar. It was said to be served with egg rolls, shrimp, lobster, barbecued spareribs, and Chinese roast pork.

Next, the Chicago Tribune (IL), October 24, 1952, printed that “Oriental duck sauce is what the Chinese people call ‘soo moy jung’ and use to enhance the flavor of their poultry, meats and fish. The sauce is a sweet and pungent condiment, a cross between chutney and thick plum jam in flavor. Serve this sauce and a hot mustard sauce in two small dishes accompanying egg rolls, fantail shrimps, and other Chinese favorites. It’s good with spareribs and hamburgers, too.” Once again, duck isn’t one of the recommendations.

Some more brief mentions occurred in other newspapers. The Petoskey News-Review (Michigan), January 22, 1953, stated, “But most tempting were tidbit strips of pork broiled over charcoal and dipped in hot mustard and then in duck sauce.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (NY), May 21, 1953, mentioned, “Duck sauce, sometimes called plum sauce, so frequently served at Chinese restaurants is a popular item.”

Duck sauce was becoming so popular that non-Chinese Americans started getting into its creation. The Tulsa World (OK), July 31, 1953, noted that an American company was producing a new sauce, called Sparib, for barbecued meats that resembled Chinese Duck Sauce. The article mentioned “This sweet and pungent sauce, made of fruits and spices can be turned into a barbecue sauce, a salad dressing, or a canapé spread." The Sparib sauce sold for about 49 cents. 

The San Antonio Express (TX), July 7, 1955, published a grocery store advertisement for Sparib, noting, “Sparib Sauce (Duck Sauce) for indoor and outdoor cooking. Sparib adds that ‘very special touch’ to hamburgers, hot dogs, dish, fowl and spare ribs, too!” 

Duck sauce and egg rolls was a common combination during this time period. The Evening Star (DC), June 30,1954, mentioned that one of their readers was seeking a recipe for duck sauce, which was often served with mustard sauce for egg rolls at Chinese restaurants.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram (TX), May 5, 1955, provided a recipe for “Plum or Duck Sauce” from the The House of Chan Cookbook by Sou Chan, which was to be served “..with egg rolls, shrimp, barbecued spareribs and other Chinese dishes.” The recipe called for 1 cup plum jelly. ½ cup chutney (chopped very fine), 1 tablespoon vinegar, and 1 tablespoon sugar. The ingredients were then beat together until smooth.

A little more definition for duck sauce was provided in the Evening Star (DC), April 12, 1956. In an article on Chinese condiments, it stated, “Su-moi-jung (duck sauce) has no connection with duck per se, but it is a favorable condiment for Chinese roast duck. It’s a blend of sweet and sour, and flavored with the aromatic juice of peaches and apricots.

Finally, duck and duck sauce. The Berkshire Eagle (MA), July 24, 1956, discussed the Chinese roast duck at the China Clipper Restaurant. The servers brought large bowls of duck sauce and hot mustard, which were to be mixed together so people could then dip their duck.

The Boston American, December 2, 1956, published a recipe for Chinese Egg Rolls, noting they were served with “Plum Sauce (also called Duck Sauce).”

The Daily Times (MD), March 29, 1957, printed an ad for Cantwell’s Oriental Foods, noting they sold Su-Moi-Jung, Chinese Duck sauce.

The Kansas City Star (MO), April 3, 1967, discussed duck sauce. “It is really a kind of chutney, which may be thinned down to suit, a sweet-sour sauce used originally for duck—hence its name—now used with pork and other meats, with the egg rolls or even over plain rice.” It ia also known as soo-moy-ding and shuen moy jeung.

An interesting origin story was presented in the San Francisco Chronicle (CA), July 17, 1972: It stated, “Duck sauce is a common but incorrect spelling of Chinese Duk Sauce, which is a rather sweet sauce made of peaches, apricots, vinegar, sugar and spices. It is usually served in small dishes and often is accompanied by hot mustard.” This was the only mention I found though to "Chinese Duk Sauce.

The Alton Evening Telegraph (IL), July 21, 1971, discussed the Chinese and plums. “The Chinese have a centuries-old romance going with the plum. The first wild plums were found growing in China over 2,000 years ago, and in the years intervening, this luscious fruit has been used both in the finest Chinese art and in the finest of Chinese cuisine.” The article continued, “One of the most famous sauces of all time is Chinese Plum Sauce, used in exquisite oriental recipes for duck and pork.” So, it seems possible that duck sauce could have just as easily ended up being called pork sauce. 

During the 1970s and 1980s, a few companies, like Kari-Out (based in New York), W.Y Industries (based out of New Jersey) and Yi Pin Food Products (based out of New York), sprouted up, producing plastic packets of duck sauce. Kari-Out, founded by Howard Epstein in 1964, first started making plastic packets of soy sauce, though they initially had trouble breaking into the market. With air travel in the 1970s becoming affordable, Epstein provided soy sauce for a number of airlines, and he was also able to travel across the country and find other customers.

In 1972, Kari-Out added packets of duck sauce to their portfolio, and currently, they are one of the main producers across the country. Their orange colored duck sauce packets are ubiquitous at Chinese restaurants from coast to coast. If you examine one of their packets, you’ll see their ingredients include water, high fructose corn syrup and/or sucralose, corn starch modified, apricot (sulfited), salt, vinegar, citric acid, caramel color, 1/10 of 1% sodium benzoate, FD&C Yellow #5, #6, and FD&C Red #40.

We have more clarity on the origins of "duck sauce" though a definitive answer is still elusive. It seems that "duck sauce" is probably another term for plum sauce, and was used at least as far back as 1927. In the U.S., the basic plum sauce recipe may have been adapted at times, maybe because of ingredient availability or to appeal to American tastes. Plus, it's possible that the first use of the term "duck sauce" may have originated in Boston's Chinatown, in the 1920s, and spread across the East Coast and then westward. Duck sauce remains as popular as it ever has been, and it would be fascinating if Boston's Chinatown played a part in its creation.

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