Mumbo sauce has evolved a long way from the Chinese and chicken wing carryouts of DC to the shelves of Walmart. In recent years, fast food chains have looked to capitalize on the condiment, which has long been a staple of DC’s Black food culture. KFC briefly offered a version in 2021, and now, McDonald’s will release its own limited-edition “mambo” sauce nationwide on Monday, October 9. Turns out a DC chef helped to make it happen.
Chef Jerome Grant is perhaps best known for bringing some serious cred to Smithsonian museum food. He was previously executive chef of the National Museum of the American Indian’s Mitsitam Cafe, and later the National Museum of African American History & Culture’s Sweet Home Cafe. During his time at the latter, he received a James Beard Award nomination for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic and helped write a cookbook celebrating African American cooking.
More than three years ago, Grant joined McDonald’s Culinary Council, which is comprised of a handful of chefs from a wide range of backgrounds and restaurants. The group helps advise the mega-chain on culinary trends and acts as a sounding board for new products.
“When we started this whole council a couple of years back, we brought [mumbo sauce] to the table. It was definitely something that was always on McDonald’s radar with the DMV area being a very, very strong market for them,” Grant says. (McDonald’s will simultaneously release a new sweet and spicy jam sauce with Szechuan peppercorn kick.)
Research, of course, meant tasting sauces at carryout joints and restaurants across DC and in Chicago, which both claim to be the birthplace of the sauce. (A Chicago company owns the trademark for “mumbo,” which is likely why McDonald’s is sticking with the alternate “mambo” spelling.) Grant says the team made stops at Henry’s Soul Food, various “gems” on East Capital Street, and one of his personal favorites, Chinese carryout Howard China, near Howard University. They also taste-tested various retail versions of the sauce. One of the biggest players is Maryland-based Capital City Mambo Sauce, which supplies the likes of Walmart and Giant and partnered with KFC for its limited-run sauce.
Grant was born in the Philippines and lived in various places across the US before moving to the Maryland suburbs as a young teenager. He says his mother learned English as an immigrant working in fast food restaurants. Growing up, McDonald’s was a treat when he was a “good kid,” and also the place where he’d celebrate birthdays “because that’s what we could afford at that time.” Mumbo sauce was also part of his upbringing: “We loved going to Asian carryouts. I remember my first time getting wings and mumbo sauce and fried rice—and not mumbo sauce on the side, mumbo sauce on top, salt and pepper.” He remembers skipping school to go to Dannie’s Carry Out in Petworth for fried wings and spending late nights at Howard China after the clubs when he was younger. “It was always there for us. It was always comforting,” he says.
For McDonald’s, the team wanted to create a sauce that was sweet and vinegary with a little spice at the end. They also had to make sure it was an actual dipping-style sauce: “As soon as you dip your chicken nugget in there, it coats it perfectly. You get this nice reddish orange hue to it. It’s super tasty.”
Exactly what goes on behind the scenes, Grant isn’t authorized to say. But bringing the sauce to market is a lot more complicated than just creating a recipe. “We put together characteristics, tell them things that we like about it, what we look for in a good mumbo sauce. And they replicate that on their end,” he says. “You can have these great ideas, but there’s a whole other system that happens on the back that we don’t deal with, whether it’s supply chain or proper packing houses that pack things. So, that part also takes time too.”
Grant says McDonald’s made an effort to use products from Black-owned producers and distributors to create the sauce, and a Black-owned, woman-led packer based out of Chicago helped create and troubleshoot the end product.
“It’s a great representation of the sauce that we love in this city and of our city. We fight so hard for representation, and now we have this chance to kind of say, ‘You know what? McDonald’s sees our culture. McDonald’s feels this DC culture. They want to help highlight and pay homage to it. And that’s the big thing about it,” Grant says.
McDonald’s will even release a YouTube documentary alongside the sauce, also on October 9, “sharing the real stories of the sauce makers, restaurateurs, small business owners and fans keeping the culture of Mambo strong,” according to a press release.
Grant has also made his own versions of mumbo sauce over the years, including for specials at Sweet Home Cafe. His personal recipe includes pineapple juice, brown sugar, a little bit of soy sauce, apple cider vinegar, and “additional nuances.”
He’ll likely have a rendition of it at Mahal, his Afro-Filipino barbecue pop-up which is currently looking for a permanent home. It was originally supposed to open inside the new downtown DC food hall, the Square. But Grant says he stepped away from those plans because “we just weren’t ready,” and he and his wife had too much else going on between their three kids and various projects for their restaurant consulting company, Hungry Cat Cooperative. He says to stay tuned for more events and pop-ups before year’s end.