In May, when McDonald’s started offering a BTS-branded meal — Chicken McNuggets, a medium Coke and fries with two new sauces, Cajun and sweet chili — fans of the K-pop boy band swarmed stores around the world to snag a taste. Others collected the sauces to resell on eBay. I found it hard to escape the marketing, and the mayhem. I saw ads for the meal everywhere: in my Twitter feed, on TikTok and YouTube and, one night in early June, on a walk home from drinks with friends in Manhattan. There it was, splashed across a McDonald’s storefront. I stopped in to try the meal for myself.
Save for the two limited-edition sauces and the purple packaging — a color deeply associated with the band and its fandom — there was nothing particularly special about the food. It was a regular McNugget meal (which, to be clear, is great). The Cajun sauce, a mayonnaise-forward number, delighted me with its mustardy heat, the nose-clearing kind. The sweet-chili sauce tasted like hard candy spiked with red-pepper flakes and reminded me of my favorite McDonald’s sauce growing up: sweet-and-sour.
The true joy of a nugget lies in the dipping.
As a food writer, I often feel pressure to write about homemade meals. But as a reader, I know there are many food experiences outside the kitchen that can mark us indelibly, too. It’s easy to wax lyrical about a perfect roast chicken, but what about a Chicken McNugget dipped in sweet-and-sour sauce? While the sauce, a mainstay of American Chinese restaurants, usually has a tomato-y element, the appeal of the McDonald’s version lies in its simpler taste and its use of apricot and peach purée. But it’s the texture that makes the sweet-and-sour a work of art. You can see it whenever an A.S.M.R. YouTuber dips a McNugget into the sauce: The amber liquid balloons around the chicken like a raindrop growing bigger and bigger on a waterproof surface. When the nugget emerges, it appears to be draped in a thin, perfectly even layer of sauce every time — no excess. The two were made for each other.
I’ve dipped many chicken nuggets in my life. But when I was a kid in Georgia, the special lure of McDonald’s was the PlayPlace, a plastic fantasy world of slides, tunnels and, more often than not, a ball pit. I remember the way everything in the ball pit was slicked with grease, each plastic sphere and surface sticking to my skin as I played Marco Polo with my brother. The PlayPlace was also where my mother went to meet other Korean parents with little children. I can still hear her refrain: “Excuse me, are you Korean?” Back then, there weren’t many Korean people in Georgia, especially when my parents immigrated to the United States in 1983. These outings were a salve for all of us: As my mother and her new friends gossiped over French fries and Sprite, my brother and I hopped around the playground, intermittently running to her for that chicken and that sauce.
Years later, when I ordered that BTS Meal, I asked for a couple of packets of sweet-and-sour in addition to the two special sauces. As I worked from home the next day, I stared at the leftover sauce sitting on my desk and thought: How hard could it be to recreate this for lunch? I went to the kitchen to try a homemade version that hit the same notes as that rectangular packet with the lime green label that I grew up adoring. I found that apricot preserves gave me the fruity sweetness I wanted, especially once it was stirred through with a little rice vinegar, soy sauce and onion powder. Though I can’t say this sauce was an exact replica, the flavor was flooded with a savory quality, the kind that makes you smack your lips. For more intrigue, I speckled that shiny, honey orange surface with a pinch of red-pepper flakes, inspired by the sweet-chili sauce from the BTS Meal. The pepper made it sing.
Now I needed something to dip. My mother taught me that a potato-starch coating helps you get the greatest crunch on fried food, so I dredged some tofu that was sitting in my fridge and cooked it in a pan. It’s certainly not the same thing, but it’s wonderful how the texture of pressed tofu, pan-fried until shatteringly crisp, eats a lot like a Chicken McNugget and cooks up gorgeously every time. But the real test was how the homemade sauce draped the tofu — after all, the true joy of a nugget lies in the dipping. When I dragged a piece of tofu through the shiny sauce and lifted it, the coating was thin and perfectly even. They were, as they say, made for each other.