“I was immediately taken back to when I used to eat this food every day,” Jones, who lives in Annapolis. “Before responsibility. Before bills, kids, marriage and being grown-up.”
The Italians may have their marinara and the French their bearnaise, but for many D.C. natives, the sauce that captures the flavor of home is called mumbo. Few can tell you how it’s made or where it originated, but they know this: If you grew up in one of the mostly African American areas of the city, you’ve likely known the taste your entire life. If you didn’t, you probably have no idea what it is.
“It’s definitely a part of the subculture,” Jones, 34, says. “It’s the D.C. that isn’t the president and the politics.”
It’s the Washington that exists in hole-in-the-wall joints owned by Chinese and Korean immigrants who long ago learned how to cater to a mostly African American clientele, down to a condiment. It’s the Washington that if you didn’t know where to look, you might never see.
The allure of mumbo sauce (also known as mambo sauce) is not just its flavor, which falls somewhere between barbecue and sweet-and-sour sauce. It’s the sense of identity it carries. It tells of roots in a city where many people just blow through. Among the African Americans who live in the District, more than 60 percent were born here, according to census estimates. Among whites, that figure is less than 15 percent.
In its own way, mumbo sauce has traditionally distinguished the two. But that could change. As the city continues its march toward gentrification and neighborhoods shift, long-standing carryouts are increasingly finding themselves next to businesses that cater to a more upscale customer. This provides an opening for the sauce to cross over. It heightens the chance that Jones and other mumbo devotees will find themselves ordering alongside new converts.
Jones, in fact, came up with her own recipe after that craving earlier this year and now sells it online. In just the few months it has been available, orders have come in from Florida, North Carolina and Missouri.
“Nowhere else in the world can this tasty and unique sauce be found,” the Web site entices.
No mumbo, no business
Debate remains about where mumbo sauce was born — some believe in the District, others link it to a barbecue sauce in Chicago — but there’s no question that it has been adopted and customized to become Washington’s own. Visit five District carryouts and you will find five versions of the sauce, each likely made on-site. Some will appear brick red, others neon orange. Some will taste sweeter. Some tangier. Some spicier.