Who put the duck in duck sauce?

Q: Why is duck sauce called “duck sauce”? There’s no duck in this sweet sauce associated with Chinese food and I’ve never seen it served with duck. Any insights?

A: The “duck sauce” found in Chinese-American restaurants (and in those little plastic take-out packets) was indeed originally intended to go with duck.

But today it’s brought to the table no matter what you order. It goes with almost everything Chinese—and with many things that aren’t, like hamburgers.

We’re skeptical, however, about how Chinese this Chinese sauce actually is.

The use of the name “duck sauce” for this condiment appears to be an American brainchild, and so does the sauce itself or at least the orange stuff you now get in those plastic packets.

From what we can gather, the original duck sauce was what the Chinese would call plum sauce (plum, vinegar, brown sugar, ginger, etc.) or perhaps an Americanized version of it.

The Chinese chef Grace Zia Chu, in her book Madame Chu’s Chinese Cooking School (1975), has this to say about the birth of duck sauce:

“The name ‘duck sauce’ was created in the United States because this sauce was originally served with deep-fried pressed duck, which had no sauce of its own.”

She includes a recipe for duck sauce that combines Chinese plum sauce, apricot preserves, peach preserves, applesauce, dry mustard, garlic powder, and chili sauce.

The food writer Rhonda Lauret Parkinson, in The Everything Chinese Cookbook (2003), offers her version of the birth of duck sauce:

“Plum sauce was nicknamed ‘duck sauce’ after Western Chinese restaurants began serving it with Peking Duck, under the mistaken impression that this was an authentic practice. In reality, Peking Duck is traditionally served with hoisin sauce.”

However, the earliest published reference for Chinese “duck sauce” that we could find (thanks to the word sleuth Barry Popik and his Big Apple website) suggests that it was originally served with all kinds of duck dishes.

The citation, from Henry Low’s Cook at Home in Chinese (1938), describes “duck sauce” as a “kind of chutney good with any kind of duck.”

But let’s back up a bit. When we speak of duck sauce, we’re broadly referring to two kinds of sauce.

One is used in European-style cooking and is made with oranges. The other is used in Chinese-American cooking and may or may not be made with oranges.

Let’s start with the European version, which came first. This sauce used to be—and sometimes still is—referred to as “bigarade sauce,” and the dish associated with it as “duck (or duckling) bigarade.”

The word “bigarade,” which was first recorded in English in 1658, is the name of a sour orange, sometimes called the Seville orange, used in cooking, flavorings, and essential oils.

The essence for Grand Marnier liqueur, for example, comes from the rind of bigarade oranges.

It isn’t often that we go to the bookcase in our kitchen to research a language question, but our old copy The New Doubleday Cookbook came in handy here.

One recipe for roast duckling appears under three names. The cookbook says it’s known as “duckling with orange sauce,” “duckling à l’orange,” or “duckling à la bigarade.”

The recipe calls for a sauce on the side made with orange rind, sugar, orange and lemon juices, water, and brandy.

“To be strictly authentic,” the cookbook says, “this recipe should be made with bitter Seville oranges.”

English borrowed the word “bigarade” directly from French, but the ultimate source is probably an old Occitan word, bigarrada, meaning multicolored, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

(Occitan, in case you’re curious, is a Romance language spoken in parts of France, Italy, Spain, and Monaco.)

“Bigarade” originally meant the orange itself. But in the 19th century it also came to mean “a sauce made with bigarade oranges, and dishes, esp. roast duck, served with this sauce,” the OED says.

Oxford’s first citation for the word used in this sense is from an 1833 edition of The Cook’s Dictionary, and House-Keeper’s Directory, by Richard Dolby.

A recipe in the book for fillets of wild duck à l’orange says, “Arrange them in a dish, and serve with bigarade sauce under them.”

We looked up the recipe, and the sauce calls for the rind of a Seville orange. (It also says that wild ducks should be fresh: “if not fresh, on opening the beak they will smell disagreeable.” Maybe we won’t try this recipe after all.)

In Britain and the United States, the sauce served with roast duck has sometimes been called “orange gravy” or “orange sauce.” As far as we can tell, however, it is not commonly referred to as “duck sauce.”

The OED cites an 1845 recipe from Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery in All Its Branches (1845), which has a recipe for “orange gravy, for wild fowl.”

The recipe involves boiling “half the rind of a Seville orange” with “a small strip of lemon-rind,” then straining the liquid and adding port or claret.

More recently, the OED cites a 1950 advertisement in the New York Times offering “Tender and succulent Roast Stuffed Long Island Duckling … Served with Orange Gravy.”

In Chinese-American cooking, the term “duck sauce” refers to a similar but not identical concoction. As we said earlier, it may or may not contain oranges.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines the term “duck sauce” as “a thick sauce in Chinese cuisine that contains fruits (as plums or apricots), vinegar, sweeteners, and seasonings.”

We’ll stick with Madame Chu’s recipe.

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