The Real McCoy–Homemade Sweet and Sour Pork

sweetandsourpork1 by you.

We’ve all had sweet and sour pork at some point or another. If you, like me, have been put off this dish forever by greasy battered pork doused in toxic 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 of 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 U.S. 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.

Remember Aunti Pearlie? Well, try he rsweet 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)

sweetandsourpork3 by you.


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 pound 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
One 8-ounce can pineapple chunks, well drained (about 1 cup)

Sauce:
2/3 cup water
3 tablespoons tomato ketchup
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon soy sauce
3 tablespoons distilled white vinegar

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.

Bring marinated pork to room temperature before cooking.

Line a plate with paper towels.

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.

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, 7 to 8 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Grandma says:
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.

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Aunty Pearlie’s Cantonese-Style Steamed Cake

Aunty Pearlie is not related to me by blood; she is, in fact, my friend Ivy’s mother. In Asian culture, we call our friends’ parents “aunty” and “uncle” as a form of respect. This was a concept my husband, let’s call him hungry_ hobbit (yes, he loves Tolkien!), could not fathom. When we were dating, I explained this cultural quirk to him and he asked if he could call my parents by their first names instead. I spoke with my parents and they agreed, seeing as he was American and all. The funny thing was, hungry_hobbit was still uncomfortable since he knew my parents were not used to their childrens’ friends (let alone boyfriends) calling them by their first names, so he ended up not calling them anything at all! Their conversations went something like this:

Mum: Good morning, *hungry_hobbit*. How are you?

Hungry_hobbit: Hello err (pause) … I’m fine.

Mum: Have you eaten, *hungry_hobbit*? (Our lives center around food so we always ask this question when we greet each other)

Hungry_hobbit: No. Have you and ermm … **mumble mumble** … (his head nodding toward my dad) had breakfast?

And so the conversation would go …

Thankfully, now that hungry_hobbit has settled into being the perfect son-in-law, he calls them comfortably by their first names.

Anyway, back to Aunty Pearlie. Aunty Pearlie is originally from Hong Kong, and moved to the U.S. in 1967. Her parents owned a butcher shop in Hong Kong which employed 13 employees. Together with her and her 11 siblings, plus her parents and a grandmother and grandaunt, there was a lot of cooking to be done in her household. (Yes, the employees were fed too!) Thankfully, they had two maids who cooked up two big meals a day and Aunty Pearlie observed them with a keen eye in the kitchen. Considering the family business, there was always a gamut of meat to choose from: chicken, duck, pork, goose, fish, etc.

Aunty Pearlie was visiting Seattle from Ohio and I asked her to share some of her favorite recipes. She obliged and I now have her recipes for sweet and sour pork, minus the glow-in-the-dark sauce served at many Chinese American restaurants, cold white chicken (both to come!) and this Cantonese-style steamed cake below. It’s a very simple recipe and while Auntie Pearlie dictated, I went through the motions. I used a stock pot with a steamer insert but for other ideas and tips on steaming see my previous post: My rise as steam queen.

Cantonese-style steamed cake

This sponge cake is quite like an angel food cake but uses whole eggs instead of just the whites. Sometimes you can find it at dim sum restaurants as ma lai go. Aunty Pearlie likes to make it in a round pan because she says, “The Chinese believe round means smooth for everyone. Square has sharp edges which means stubborn.” Try it with whipped cream, the way Aunty Pearlie’s grandkids like it!

Important: do not leave the batter to stand, the steamer must be ready when the batter is done.

Makes: 8 servings

4 eggs

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup all-purpose flour

Fill the bottom half of your steamer with water, cover and bring to boil over high heat. Turn down heat to medium.

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, beat eggs and sugar with a hand mixer until all the sugar dissolves. About 2 minutes. Test with your fingers to see if any granules remain.

Add flour and beat until pale and fluffy, about 4 to 5 minutes. Pour batter into an 8″ round glass casserole or soufflé dish.

Place in steamer rack. Cover the top of the steamer with a kitchen towel (to catch condensing water droplets). Place the lid on top andsteam for 20 to 25 minutes or until cake has puffed up and surface looks like it’s covered with moon craters. Insert a knife into the middle and it should come out clean.

Cool completely before cutting into slices.