Don’t want to hear the backstory? Jump straight to the recipe.
Mumbo sauce (or is it mambo?) has always been a bit of mystery to me. Even living right across the river from the Washington, I don’t get a lot of exposure to it without searching it out. However, it seems like in the last few years it has surged in popularity and you are starting to see it in some unexpected places.
Washington DC has its own style of late-night dining establishments that locals call “carryouts”. You can usually get wings, Chinese food, subs, and pizza all day. Lots of the more popular carryouts are located on the East side of the city in the Southeast district and near the Howard University campus. I have some fond memories of leaving bars after last call near the U-Street corridor and grabbing a giant slice of pizza and the greasiest wings I’ve ever had. For wing options, they are usually served plain, hot, or with ketchup. You order by the piece – 3 piece, 5 piece, 8 piece, etc. and you usually get them on top of either fried rice or french fries. For people in the know, the secret sauce of the city was always available but never advertised – mumbo sauce.
The mumbo sauce varies from place to place and seems to come in two varieties. A bright red, almost candy-colored, version and darker more complex sauce that is like a spicy barbecue sauce. A couple of years ago, you could start to find the sauce bottled in stores and it started showing up on menus at breweries and sit-down establishments in and around the rest of the city. Some people argue that it isn’t really DC’s iconic food, citing the half smoke as the dish that it should be known for, and even DC’s mayor dissed mumbo sauce in a tweet causing a lot of backlash.
I definitely prefer of the darker more complex mumbo sauce to the sticky red sauce. However, the red sauce is allegedly made with Cherry Kool-Aid which I think is pretty neat. I’ve attached a recipe from a since-deleted reddit user that has a great bright red mumbo sauce recipe if that’s what you’re after.
I like to get wings from a local Chinese Restaurant that offers mumbo sauce as a side option (it’s not on the menu, you have to ask). When I started to look for a recipe to make my own, I noticed that a lot of the recipes out there were far too complex for the carryout restaurants that they originated from to make them. Lots of them involve using hard-to-find ingredients and long cooking times. Sampling the sauce from some of the original locations, it’s pretty obvious that it is dressed up ketchup.
My first experiment in making it involved mixing ketchup, sweet-and-sour sauce, and hot sauce together. This actually made a really good mumbo sauce, but it was too bright and not quite as complex as what I am used to getting. I tried adding brown sugar or molasses to see if I could get the color darker and the flavors to smooth out. This worked, but it made the sauce overly sweet. I realized that the sauce was obviously cooked and reduced down which would deepen the color and flavor to what I was used to. I experimented with some different cooking times to see the results of different cooking times with my basic recipe.
I compared the raw sauce, and a sauce that I cooked at 5 minute, 10 minute, 15 minute, and 20 minute intervals to both my favorite carryout sauce and the Capital City brand that I can buy in my local grocery store. The raw sauce had a bite from the acid in the ketchup and sweet-and-sour that was unpleasant, but overcooking the sauce turned it into a thick and sticky barbecue sauce. The 15 and 20 minutes sauces were delicious, and make a great barbecue sauce, but weren’t true to the original. The 5 minute cook ended up tasting nearly exactly like my favorite carryout.
- 1 cup ketchup
- 1 cup sweet-and-sour sauce
- 2 Tablespoons hot sauce (I like to use Frank’s Red Hot). Adjust to taste.
Mix all ingredients in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer and cook for five minutes and then remove from heat. Serve at room temperature with chicken wings, french fries and fried rice.
Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.