When one considers Washington DC to outsiders, a few expected images come to mind:
- Monuments and museums.
- The White House.
- Endless bureaucracy.
- The never-ending soap opera that is United States politics.
What doesn’t usually come up, however, is food. Philadelphia has its cheesesteaks. New York has its pizza, bagels, and pastrami. Even nearby Maryland has its popular crab cakes. In many people’s eyes, the US capital has never had an internationally and nationally recognizable culinary treasure to call its own.
But for several true Washingtonians – not transplants in town for the politics – there is one crucial exception: mambo sauce, tangy, and a unique red-orange sweet condiment often used on everything from shrimp to fried chicken and wings and fried rice.
While the roots of the word “mambo” have been lost to time, core ingredients ordinarily include soy sauce, vinegar, ketchup, hot sauce, sugar, and tomato sauce. Some versions also involve pineapple juice.
Local foodies are especially protective of the sauce and its role in local culture. For example, in 2018, Mayor Muriel Bowser drew the ire of many components by saying she was “annoyed” at the sauce’s relation with DC, a remark even the Washington Post characterized as “not a minor slip.”
On her private Facebook page, Bowser, who took office in 2015, asked why and how the sauce had become a “quintessential” DC food. Faced with an invasion of criticism – some light-hearted, some not – the mayor’s spokesperson said Bowser “wanted to give DC residents something to talk about on Thanksgiving.”
“I have no idea how I began eating it. It’s just a part of the culture,” told Angela Byrd, a DC resident who founded MadeInTheDMV, a think-tank aimed at supporting local brands and culture. “Everyone eats it. It’s weird when people don’t.”