Sweet and sour cooking has been a cornerstone of Chinese cuisine for centuries, but its influence worldwide can hardly be understated – it’s reached Europe, the US, and even the confines of fast food giant McDonald's in the form of dipping sauce.
‘Sweet and sour’ can refer to many things: cooking methods, a cuisine, an addition to chicken nuggets. It’s most commonly seen as the base for meat marinades, a dipping or stir-fry sauce: anyone who’s been to a Chinese restaurant would recognise sweet and sour pork (or chicken) as a recurrent sighting. But sweet and sour goes beyond Chinese cuisine – it’s become a taste phenomenon. The ubiquitous nature of Chinese restaurants around the world aside, the practice of using of vinegar and sugar in the same recipe has proliferated in countless cuisines – German and Peruvian, just to name two.
What is it about these two contrasting flavours that go together so well? Like umami or salty and sweet (we know salted caramel is the lifeblood of some, if not all readers), it traces back to the simplest of adages: opposites attract. It may not be a foolproof theory (from a scientific perspective) but cuisines across the world can’t all be wrong and finding the right combination can really make that dish standout.
Here are a few countries that take on the sweet 'n’ sour approach and make it their own.
South Korea - Tangsuyuk
Consider Tangsuyuk to be Korea’s answer to Chinese sweet and sour pork, but with its own distinct flair. Adapted from Chinese cuisine to suit Korean taste, Tangsuyuk involves making a batter out of potato starch then using this as a base for deep frying meats – chicken, pork or beef, before drizzling the meat in a sweet and sour sauce.
The key to mastering the time-consuming process of making Tangsuyuk from scratch is in striking the balanced between tart and sweet in the drizzling sauce, achieved by measuring the quantities of vinegar and sugar precisely, or with a cook’s intuition.
Vietnam - Sour soup
Hot, sweet, sour – three flavour profiles we’ve come to expect from South East Asian cuisine, in particular, Thai and Vietnamese. Canh hai san mang chua, or sour soup, is a dish that hails from the Mekong Delta region of southern Vietnam, made with tamarind, pineapple, tomatoes and other vegetables, as well as fish from the Mekong, caramelised onions, bean sprouts and spring onions. It’s the tamarind paste that makes this dish sour, while the sweetness of the pineapple and the tomatoes work to offset the tang. Get this Luke Nguyen recipe right here.
Germany - Rotkohl
Rotkohl may be a mere side dish, but considering it’s found in almost every restaurant in Germany as well as family homes alongside Sunday roasts and rouladen (meat rolls filled with bacon and pickles), it might just be the most powerful side dish in the country. Made from red cabbage simmered in butter, apples, vinegar, red currant jam bay leaves cloves and juniper berries, rotkohl is kind of like a sweet and sour sauerkraut. Packed full of vitamins, high in fibre but low in fat, rotkohl might just earn itself a place on your Christmas table this year – even if you’re not in Germany. Get our recipe here.
Peru – Sweet and sour guinea pig
Cute as they may be, guinea pigs are somewhat of a delicacy dish in the South American country of Peru. Known as cuy, they commonly appear on restaurant menus and family dinner tables across the country.
Sweet and sour guinea pig is seen as a by-product of Chinese-Peruvian fusion cuisine – Chifa, which marries Chinese cooking traditions with Peruvian ingredients. In the many Chinese restaurants in Lima and the rest of the country, cuy is served with either an oyster or sweet and sour sauces. Sweet and sour guinea pig is indicative of the many ways in which Peruvian cuisine has opened up to global culinary influences (remember nikkei?), adopting alternative flavours to make something completely new.
India - Sweet and sour lentils
This sublime dish comes from the western Indian state of Gujerat, which is almost wholly vegetarian thanks to Jain and traditional Hindu religious influences. This gurajati dal is so easy and the consistency is thin with a mild sweet and sour taste. The sweetness comes from the jaggery, the sour from the tamarind and tomato. Make it as soupy or as thick as you like and serve with plenty of roti to scoop it up with. Recipe here.
Spain - Charred leeks with romesco sauce
The Spanish have certainly been doing it right when it comes to their romesco sauce. A nut and red pepper-based sauce, toasted bread, red wine vinegar and garlic are added to the mix to create a sweet, tangy and earthy dip.
Every year between November and April in the Catalan province of Spain, a special type of onion called a calçot (looks like a young leek with a white stem) is harvested and cooked over grapevine cuttings until it’s charred. The outer leaves are peeled off and the sweet steaming onion served with this marvellous sauce - and be generous with your saucy serves and serve it up with fish, meat, poultry or vegetables like here with these leeks.
Iran - Sweet and sour fish
A dish of baked fish in a sweet-sour sauce flavoured with pomegranate, orange, and lime. Mahi-e aflatuni is one of the many dishes that emphasises how Iranian/Persian foods balance sweet and sour in many of their recipes. Grape juice, sour cherry juice and dried sour cherries, pomegranate juice, sumac, dried sour plums and barberries all possess some sour power behind them.
This recipe brings pomegranate, grape, orange and tomato juices to the boil. Stir in honey and season with salt and pepper before placing the pouring it over the fish and baking it in the oven.
The UK - Worcestershire sauce
The actual recipe of Worcestershire sauce (or ‘Wooster’ for the initiated) has been kept top secret since the 1830s when John Wheeley Lea and William Henry Perrins devised the recipe, however, the flavour notes of this classic meat accompaniment are broadly sweet and sour. The original bottle (sold in the UK as “The Original & Genuine Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce) include barley malt vinegar, spirit vinegar, molasses, tamarind, and other, inexplicable trace ingredients like anchovies.
The mystery of this sauce may persist forever, but its popularity remains: it’s used in Japan for tonkatsu sauce, and in Commonwealth countries as the ideal sauce for a fine steak. It’s even been known to play a starring role in everyone’s favourite hair of the dog cocktail, the Bloody Mary. Make your own Wooster using this recipe.
Italy - Sweet and sour sardines
Saor, the technique of marinating fried food in vinegar, was a typical technique of Venetian fisherman in order to preserve the fish over several days. The sharpness of the white vinegar and dry white wine is balanced by the sweetness from the dried fruits and toasted pine nuts in this Italian classic and this dish of sardines in sweet and sour sauce speaks of the influences of trade with the East.
China - Sweet and sour pork
Because no sweet and sour list would be complete without at least a passing mention to the dish that possibly started it all – Chinese sweet and sour pork. The dish has ancient origins, yet it’s probably one of the more recognisable Chinese dishes in countries far from China in 2017. It’ said to have been created in Chencun, Guangdong province, much to the appreciation of foreign visitors.
A Cantonese dish, the name gu lou is indicative of the noise one makes when gulping, or salivating in anticipation of a meal. Anyone who’s tried an authentic version of sweet and sour pork understands this sensation completely.
Try a variation on the theme with this recipe for sweet and sour barramundi.
The flesh of the mullet has a deep sweetness but with the intense umami character traditionally associated with lobster or crab.
This is a version of the classic Australian take on Chinese sweet and sour pork, a dish often thought of as daggy, but one that, when done well, has a beautiful balance of salt, vinegar and subtle sweetness. This recipe also carries heat from the chilli and sichuan pepper, both of which combine well with this particular cut of goat.
Alex Bourdon, from French bistro and wine bar Tastevin in Sydney (now closed), shares this recipe for succulent duck breast served with crispy fried potato dumplings, creamy celeriac mash and a sensational blackcurrant sauce.