We’ve all had sweet and sour pork at some point or another. If you, like me, have been put off this dish by its greasy battered pork doused in pink glow-in-the-dark sauce served at a Chinese-American restaurant and/or the supermarket deli counter, take heart, there is hope yet!
I was actually surprised to find out that sweet and sour pork is a bona fide Cantonese dish. It’s just that many restaurants in North American do a lousy job when making it.
Some say it originates from a traditional Jiangsu pork dish made with a sugar and vinegar sauce (tang chu li ji) and it is closely related to sweet-and-sour spare ribs (tang chu pai gu). Sweet and sour pork probably spread to the United States in the early 20th century when Chinese migrant gold miners and railroad workers swapped trades and started cooking. And from thereon it permeated the country and is now a standard item on every Chinese-American menu.
Try this sweet-and-sour pork recipe and you’ll look at this oft-vilified dish with entirely new eyes and your tastebuds will thank you for it.
Sweet and sour pork (Gu Lao Rou)
There are endless variations of this quintessential Chinese dish but it always tastes best homemade. The pork cut of choice is pork butt or shoulder – not too lean, not too fatty. Other cuts may be leaner but they often turn tough and chewy when fried. So trim the fat if you must, or substitute with chicken breast.
Time: 1 hour plus marinating time
Makes 4 to 6 servings as part of a multicourse family-style meal
1 lb. pork butt, trimmed of fat if desired and cut into 1-inch cubes
3 tablespoons self-raising flour
1 teaspoon Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 cups vegetable oil, divided
1 medium carrot, peeled and cut thinly on the diagonal
1 green or red pepper, cut into 1-inch squares
1 medium yellow onion, cut into 8 wedges and separated
1 clove garlic, minced
1 8-ounce can pineapple chunks, well drained (about 1 cup)
2/3 cup water
3 tablespoons tomato ketchup
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon soy sauce
3 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
1. In a medium bowl, mix the pork together with the flour, rice wine, salt, pepper, and egg with your hands, making sure to coat each piece of pork well. Marinate in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours, preferably 12 hours.
2. Bring marinated pork to room temperature before cooking.
3. Line a plate with paper towels.
4. In a large wok, heavy skillet, or Dutch oven, heat oil over high heat until it reaches 350 degrees F. on a deep-fry thermometer.
5. Reduce heat to medium-high. Using tongs, drop the pork a few pieces at a time into the hot oil, ensuring the pieces don’t stick together. Fry in batches, seven to eight pieces at a time, until golden brown and crispy, about 6 to 7 minutes. When done, remove the pork with a slotted spoon, shaking off excess oil, and drain on paper towels. Keep warm in a 300 degree F. oven.
6. Use a slotted spoon or a wire mesh strainer to remove any debris from the oil and bring oil temperature up to 350 degrees F. again before frying the next batch. Repeat with remaining pork.
7. Drain the remaining oil and wipe down the wok with a paper towel. Heat 2 tablespoons of fresh oil over medium-high heat. Fry the garlic until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Toss in the onions and carrots and stir for about a minute. Add the peppers and stir-fry until tender-crisp, about 2 minutes. (If you prefer softer carrots, cook ahead by microwaving or steaming.) Add the pineapple, give everything a quick stir and turn off the heat, leaving the vegetables in the wok.
8. In a small saucepan, mix the sauce ingredients together and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring continuously. Once the sauce starts to bubble and thicken, about 1 to 2 minutes, reduce the heat to low. Pour in the vinegar and stir to mix. Set aside.
9. Tumble the cooked pork nuggets into the wok with the vegetables and pour the sauce over. Toss to coat and transfer to a large rimmed platter or bowl. Serve immediately with freshly steamed rice.
You may deep-fry pork the nuggets ahead of time. Refrigerate or freeze until needed. Then re-heat with a quick dip in hot oil or in the oven. Don’t forget to bring the meat to room temperature first.