Apart from a vague awareness that the McDonald’s curry sauce existed, I frankly had zero interest in it. Sure, I remembered on occasion to ask for curry sauce with my fries, but that’s how much I would concede to like it.
It’s just curry sauce anyway—what’s the big deal?
Apparently, it’s big enough to warrant McDonald’s launching the sale of the sauce in bottled form. Its allure is so strong that stocks were already running out on the day of the launch.
An attempt to dig into the history of the curry sauce and its production only yielded this enigmatic generic response from a McDonald’s spokesperson reproduced below in full:
“McDonald’s Curry Sauce was developed specially for spice-loving Singaporeans more than 20 years ago and since then, it has become one of McDonald’s most popular and iconic condiments, capturing the hearts of Singaporeans who enjoy it best with our Chicken McNuggets. In celebration of McDonald’s 40th anniversary in Singapore this year, we decided to bring back Curry Sauce in a bottle again (following its 2016 debut) – and also ordered a higher quantity of bottles this time around. We have been receiving fantastic response towards our limited-edition Curry Sauce Bottles since the first day of launch yesterday. Stocks are selling out really fast, so get them while they last!”
Other than its optimistic shilling of the curry sauce and enthused excitement over the sales reception of its bottled form, the response can hardly be said to represent a definitive historiography of the McDonald’s curry sauce.
How did someone have the idea to make a misnomer of a curry sauce that didn’t give a fiery beating to your tongue—and expect it to be a success with “spice-loving Singaporeans”?
More surprisingly, why the heck is it so successful?
Simply put, a fellow keyboard magician here at Rice HQ sent me an ethnographic account of the McDonald’s curry sauce.
What I discovered was shocking: the McDonald’s curry sauce had a truly tumultuous past, with shortages of the coveted condiment allegedly triggering riots and full-scale complaints on the McDonald’s Facebook page.
It’s just curry sauce. How could anyone love it that much???
Because there’s nothing more antagonising to me than not understanding something that everyone seems to accept without question, I was clear about what I had to do: use the McDonald’s curry sauce as a condiment for everything I ate in a day.
It would be the quickest way to familiarise my tastebuds with the curry sauce and learn to love it. Besides, the curry sauce bottle label claimed it had to be finished within three weeks of opening. Short of eating it every day, with everything, or drinking it like water, I didn’t see how someone could finish the bottle of curry sauce otherwise.
Hopefully, in the process, I could understand the inexplicable relationship people have with the McDonald’s curry sauce.
At $5.50 per bottle, the curry sauce bottles are available for purchase only if you order nuggets off the menu—McDonald’s knows where your money is and they’re not afraid to ask for it.
I’ll be frank, the curry sauce looks like a muddy sludge of dubious origins at a surface glance, and it does have the exquisite consistency of diarrhoea (there’s no escaping that). I was not looking forward to eating everything with it.
I’m a bona fide spice man, the sort of person who would happily eat for three hours at a Mala hotpot buffet with friends or dive into a bowl of Mala Xiang Guo. It’s truly a joy to relish the numbing torture of Sichuan Peppercorns and chilli incinerating your mouth and guts.
The McDonald’s curry sauce, however, is far from being even remotely spicy. The flavour profile is instead just mostly sweet, with a mild hint of an unknown spice mix.
Why the McDonald’s curry sauce tastes the way it does has a lot to do with the history of curry itself. Rather than referring specifically to a dish, the contemporary use of ‘curry’ has come to denote dishes with an Indian Subcontinent origin that use blends of spices or herbs.
It’s suspect that the creation of the McDonald’s curry sauce mirrors the creation of curry powder. The precise origins of curry powder are unclear, with contesting claims stating variously that it was Chinese cooks trying to imitate Indian cuisine for a British audience plump from the occupation of India, or that it’s a Western interpretation of Indian food driven by Capitalism™.
The only thing consistent is the consensus that mere curry or curry powder—as words and concepts—are in reality, far removed from whatever associations with Indian cuisine.
Considering the sweetness of Japanese curry (itself a derivation of curry powder), the fierceness of Thai green curry, and the German currywurst, Singapore’s McDonald’s curry sauce is merely the latest modern addition to a long line of interpretive culinary expressions of ‘curry’—a globalised food item that has come to take on many shades of meaning in different cultures around the world.
The first meal of the day was nothing of a struggle. Breakfast was just black coffee and scrambled eggs, on which I squirted some curry sauce. The eggs were briskly mixed with the curry sauce and wolfed down in a matter of seconds—work demanded my arrival.
The curried scrambled eggs tasted fine, but was nothing to shout about. I stuffed the bottle of curry sauce into my bag before my family found out and could judge me for eating it.
As I nursed over the second cup of coffee I was having that day, Ethel, another fellow Rice Intern, casually asks if I’m serious about eating the curry sauce with everything and anything. At that moment, I peered down into the depths of my coffee cup and knew what had to be done.
I down it in one gulp.
The coffee still tasted like coffee albeit curry sauce scented. I was fine with it, that is until I realised the curry sauce hadn’t dissolved and it went into my mouth at the very end of the gulp, in all its cloyingly sweet glory.
Seeing as we were truly hardworking interns, Ethel and I forgot about lunch until everyone started to stream in with takeaway food. We decided to go explore the culinary wilderness of Amoy Food Centre.
As an intrepid intern, I decided to buy pork gibbet porridge, something that I normally didn’t eat out of fear of the bloody taste of pig’s liver. If the McDonald’s curry sauce was so beloved by so many, I reasoned it could certainly help me overcome the fear of any food.
Feeling peckish after a long day of research, I opened a pack of prawn crackers.
The final meal of the day was simply just some pan-fried chicken as part of my fledgeling resolve to eat healthily.
But for all my curry adventures, had I really learnt to love the curry sauce, enough to make it a daily part of my life?
Errr, maybe not.
For me, the McDonald’s curry sauce only goes well with McDonald’s products and other salty or savoury foods.
Then again, I’m also the same boy who saw his sister dip fries into ice cream at Swensen’s and fell in love with that weird food combination. It’s a family habit, in fact, to cross-pollinate the sauces we encounter when eating out.
The flow of trade and culture across the globe has ensured that food has transcended geographical boundaries. Critiquing the origins of food, is entirely valid, to acknowledge the roles colonialism and globalisation have played in dictating our food culture. But even as we interrogate the past, it doesn’t mean we can’t just love the food we love in the present. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.
Even after a day of curry sauce eating, the ineffable love we have for the McDonald’s curry sauce remains inexplicable, and perhaps it should remain that way, like how I don’t understand why I like ice cream with fries.
Few things are as staunchly resistant to pin down like food is. But every once in a while, a nation discovers something that it eats with its soul, like Singapore and the McDonald’s curry sauce.
It still stumps me that McDonald’s curry sauce is popular enough to warrant the release of its bottled form. The rapid sales reception only suggests that it’s here to stay. Maybe it could turn into a permanent menu item once McDonald’s has decided to stop teasing us. Good luck to all of you curry sauce lovers out there.
Do I love it?
But I’m okay with it.