Popularization of Certain Chinese Foods in America: A Case Study of Sweet and Sour Sauce vs. Black Bean Sauce

Why do some Asian foods become popular in the United States? What causes certain foods to enter the mainstream? Comparing black bean sauce to sweet and sour sauce, why did sweet and sour sauce become a staple in Chinese-American food and not black bean sauce?

Black Bean Sauce

Sweet and Sour Sauce

Both sauces originated in southern China and are traditionally served in a stir fry. Both can be found on Chinese takeout menus. However, sweet and sour sauce consistently appears on lunch menu specials whereas black bean sauce does not. Measuring lunch special availability, as a metric for the dozen or so most popular dishes, provides a way to understand and quantify the popularity of sweet and sour sauce.

Chinese Takeout Menu with Sweet and Sour Lunch Special

Chinese Takeout Menu with Sweet and Sour Lunch Special

Sweet and sour sauce has also taken on new uses. Customers in America have taken a sauce traditionally used in stir fry and made it a dipping sauce. People dip many foods like wonton and eggrolls, not traditionally meant for sweet and sour sauce, in it, showing how America adopted and transformed the use of the sauce. Because of these new uses, sweet and sour sauce in small packets comes with every takeout order.

Sweet and Sour Sauce for Dipping

Sweet and Sour Sauce Packets

How did sweet and sour sauce change when introduced to an American audience? Often foods that crossed the Pacific underwent changes in pursuit of acceptance by the American public. Sweet and sour sauce became sweeter and more gelatinous. These changes served to make sweet and sour sauce more familiar and less exotic, in order to be more acceptable to Western tastes.

Traditional Sweet and Sour Sauce

Thicker and sweeter Sweet and Sour Sauce

How does economics and labor influence what is offered at a Chinese takeout restaurant? Black bean sauce requires more preparation work, like mincing garlic, ginger, and green onions. Sweet and sour sauce just requires mixing other sauces. The significant difference in labor needed to create each sauce could help explain why sweet and sour sauce is more mainstream.

Mincing garlic

Mixing Sweet and Sour Sauce

Does obtaining harder-to-find ingredients like fermented black beans impede the use of black bean sauce? Accessibility of ingredients also influences the frequency in which these dishes are made in the home. Sweet and sour sauce can be made with ingredients found at any American grocery store, like ketchup and soy sauce. Comparatively, black bean sauce requires ingredients that are harder to find in an American grocery store, like fermented black beans. Without easy access to the components of the sauce, a household would likely choose to make the dish in which they have the ingredients already in the house.


Comparing black bean sauce and sweet and sour sauce provide a case study to understand various ways cuisine transforms on its path from Asia to the United States. The taste of cuisine can change to better satisfy its new audience. Sweet and sour sauce became sweeter and thicker as well as used as a dipping sauce for new foods. The economic and accessibility arguments can also explain why sweet and sour sauce became popular. Ease of preparation and availability of the ingredients or the sauce itself in American grocery stores can explain why restaurants and cooks favor sweet and sour sauce over black bean sauce. A combination of economic, logistical, and culinary reasons can explain why certain sauces, like sweet and sour, have become a mainstream success in the United States.