Monday, August 14, 2017

Hear me out on this... it's time we brought sweet-and-sour back

First, some incredible news: Madame Huang's Kitchen has been nominated for a Saveur Blog '17 Award in the (why do you need to ask?) category of Obsessives. I was totally floored by this, since I didn't even know I was in the running.

If you have a chance, please vote for this blog... it would be most appreciated!

Also, a nice group of Chengdu kids made a short film on my husband and me during our trip to Sichuan in July. The link to that is the top photo on the right. 

JH & me in the film

Warning: I am officially referred to as an old lady there. I hear that this title is meant with respect and love. I'm trying to pretend to be happy about my new senior status...

Nevertheless, Chengdu has turned into one of my favorite places on planet Earth. The people are so nice, the streets are incredibly clean, and the food is insanely good. Recipes from our trip will be up before long. Can't wait to go back!

*  *  *

I pretty much grew up on the Chinese-American classic known as sweet-and-sour pork. It was a vibrant scarlet, was more greasy batter than meat, and was very sweet. But I have to admit that I thought it was fabulous. 

It's time to resurrect this delicious dish because sweet-and-sour can in fact be lots more interesting than you might remember, and also surprisingly nuanced. 

Sesame & panko
I've gotten rid of the deep-frying, because it's really not necessary here. What we have instead is a little sesame-scented shaking and baking going on (another holdover from my high school years), and the meat becomes almost ethereal as a result.

The sauce is also lightyears from what I used to devour. The addition of pickles is traditional. They also make a whole lot of sense, when you think about it, for what goes better together than pickles and pork? And since these pickles are slightly sweet and slightly sour, they amp up the flavors with every bite.

While in Taiwan, I became introduced to this variation, and then gradually was turned on to the sweet-and-sour pork dishes from other parts of China, like Sichuan and Zhejiang, where the flavors are subtle, the emphasis is on the pork rather than the batter, the color is dark, and the savory edges are out of this world. 
Pork is great...

So, all of this led me back to where I began, and I started to look into how this classic was really done in the old country. One of my favorites was the basis for this interpretation. You will find more depth of flavor and more texture here, and I swear this will make you a believer.

Do note that unlike whatever sweet-and-sour recipe you’re used to by now, this one has no red food coloring in the sauce, just some catsup. 

Yes, you can add pineapple, if you wish. It’s optional, but to be honest it’s also very, very good.

Real deal sweet-and-sour
... & so is chicken
Chuántóng gūlăoròu 傳統咕咾肉
Serves 4

Meat and marinade:
8 to 10 ounces (225 to 285 g) boneless pork, like tenderloin or shoulder, or boneless chicken thighs (with or without the skin)
1 tablespoon Chinese cooking rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
½ teaspoon five-spice powder
1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
¾ cup (65 g) panko, or other dried bread crumbs
Spray oil
Get out your homemade pickles
3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil

Sauce and pickles:
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 green onions, cut into rings
6 tablespoons (90 ml) catsup
6 tablespoons (75 g) sugar (use only 4 to 5 tablespoons if you are adding pineapple to the dish)
6 tablespoons (90 ml) water
¼ cup (60 ml) brine from Cantonese pickles
¼ cup (60 ml) pale rice vinegar
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup (150 g) drained Cantonese pickles, or half pickles and half canned pineapple cubes

Coat the meat with panko & sesame
1. Chill the meat thoroughly for easy handling. Slice the pork (or chicken) into batons about the same shape as the cucumbers in the pickles or into cubes about the same size as the carrots. Place the meat in a small work bowl and toss with the rice wine, soy sauce, sugar, five-spice powder, and chopped ginger. Marinate the meat for at least 15 minutes and up to 2 hours.

2. Set a rack in the center of your oven and heat it to 450°F (230°C). Spray a rimmed baking sheet and place it next to your work area. Drain the meat, toss in the flour and then the egg, and mix well. In a small work bowl, stir together the sesame seeds and panko or breadcrumbs. Use chopsticks to dip each piece into the panko, and then arrange these on the baking sheet so that they do not touch. Drizzle the oil over the coated meat. Bake for about 20 minutes, turning the meat once along the way. They are ready when the crusts are golden.
Much tastier than you remember

3. Add 2 tablespoons oil to the wok and set it over medium heat. Stir-fry the garlic and onion in the oil until they are fragrant but not yet browned, and then add the catsup, sugar, water, salt, pickle juice, and vinegar.

4. Just before serving, bring the sauce to a boil before tossing in the pickles and optional pineapple. Taste and adjust the seasoning. As soon as they have heated through but are not yet cooking, toss in the hot meat just until it is coated, and then scrape everything out onto a serving platter and serve immediately while the panko crust is still crunchy.


  1. Voted! And totally unsurprised that you're nominated, btw. (The custard tarts are on my to-bake list.)

    1. Thank you, Sabrina! And wait until you see the Macanese custard tarts coming up over the next two weeks...

  2. Love your blog! Been following it for years!

  3. Oh, I grew up with Sweet and Sour Pork also. But it had evolved to globs of greasy doughy coating on tiny pieces of fatty pork which I didn't care for. My husband will be so surprised and happy if I served this for dinner one night!

    1. I'm so sorry, I never replied to your lovely comment, Laura! Thanks so much, and I hope that you liked this recipe as much as we do. It's so much better than the stuff in (quote) Chinese (unquote) fast food places that it should really have a different name...

  4. This is the first Chinese dish I learned to cook at home. My mom was a career woman. Since I got home from school a couple hours before she would, I often cooked dinner. One morning, on her way out, she handed me Mrs. Ma's Chinese Cook Book and told me to make Sweet and Sour for dinner. She'd left paper flags in the pages for that, egg foo yung, and something else I've forgotten. After eating Chinese food every week of my life, I was finally going to have to learn to cook it! I've used Mrs. Ma's recipe ever since. BTW, she only dusted the meat in cornstarch for a crispier coating, IIRC, and I've never liked all the batter myself.

    Hope this is not comment bombing you. I'm really enjoying reading your memories since they tally quite well with my own. ;) Thanks for an enjoyable several hours.

    1. Mrs. Ma! I adore her book. I think I have three copies, as I buy them whenever I run across them in used bookstores and then hand them out to friends. Thanks again for the truly kind words!