Just as chicken tikka masala became the signature dish of the British curry house fifty years ago, sweet and sour pork was the safe choice in the Chinese restaurant or takeaway.
In those days, when unsophisticated palates were mixed with rising living standards, the lure of the Orient was generally tempered by a desire for familiarity and comfort.
And what could be more comforting than chunks of tender meat coated in a familiar deep-fried crispy batter and smothered in a bright red sticky, gooey, sweet sauce? Put simply, it was nursery food.
Of course, that version of sweet and sour pork demonstrated yet again the entrepreneurial nous of the small restaurateur or take-away owner in providing a menu of familiar ingredients, cooked in an apparently familiar way, pandering to our universal weakness for the sweet, the sour and the savoury.
Needless to say, the original South Chinese – i.e. Cantonese or Hong Kong – version of this once-ubiquitous dish has its roots in classical banquet cuisine, and its cooking exemplifies the virtues of the art and chemistry of stir frying. Today, there is probably a 50:50 chance of getting something resembling the traditional dish from your local take-away as opposed to the deep-fried version which once dominated.
My version of sweet and sour pork owes everything to Kenneth Lo’s ‘Encyclopaedia of Chinese Cookery’, a seminal 1970s work in which the ground-breaking restaurateur strips bare the fundamentals of Chinese cuisine, from its history and philosophy to its ingredients, techniques and etiquette.
First, a tribute to pork in the Chinese mind; we know the boar as a sign of the Chinese zodiac, where its attributes are a far cry from our ready dismissal of the beast as lazy, dirty, insensitive or even chauvinistic.
There is good reason for this. In poor countries meat is a luxury; with regular rainfall, heat and sun, more people can be sustained on an acre of grain or vegetable than an acre devoted to livestock rearing. Animals that can scavenge for themselves, that are omnivorous, and that have a productive breeding cycle, are favoured. Depending on climate and terrain people often become dependent on one principal form of managed protein such as sheep, goat, cows, or reindeer.
In South China that role is taken by the wise, sagacious and intelligent pig – and the word for meat and pork are synonymous. With the ingenuity common to those who generally have less than enough, every part of the pig is used, much as it once was in Europe – a pig is an investment which has to repay itself.
The part of the pig traditionally used for sweet and sour pork is belly pork, a relatively cheap cut, although the current gastro pub vogue for braised belly pork will no doubt lead to its overpricing.
Belly pork is known in Chinese as ‘five-flower pork’ because of its layered strata of meat and fat. It is usually sold in strips which are easily cut into cubes before cooking, perfect for a cuisine where the chopstick and spoon might be the only eating implements on the table. In Chinese cooking, knives are for the kitchen, not the table.
Sweet and sour pork is a stir-fry dish – a simple technique but one which requires care and attention to detail. It is very economical on fuel and is inextricably linked to the round-bottomed wok. Some aspects of stir-frying are difficult to replicate on a domestic cooker; even a domestic gas cooker may not generate the instant, intense, rapid heat often required. Electricity is even less responsive and certainly doesn’t accommodate the wok. The Chinese cook recognises a broad classification of types of heat, several of which may be employed in even a simple dish.
Sweet and sour pork is a cross-cooked or combination dish, because its vegetables are cooked with it. This requires an understanding of the different rates at which ingredients cook and the skill to ensure each ingredient maintains its own form, colour and texture, rather than being reduced to an undifferentiated mess.
The actual vegetable ingredients can vary but should not exceed three – often carrot, green pepper and onion – cut regularly to small squares, oblongs or batons. Sometimes button mushrooms are used. Preparation of combination dishes generally takes much longer than their cooking. An array of prepared ingredients is the palette from which the dish is conjured in minutes.
Get on with it Dave, I hear you say. So: preparing a stand-alone dish for two (i.e. not part of a banquet), use four slices of belly pork, trim off the rind (good scissors are often as useful as a knife) and chop them into one-inch pieces. Season with salt and pepper and perhaps half a teaspoon of five-spice powder or a couple of twists of a Chinese spice mill (commonly available these days, containing key spices of cinnamon, cloves, star anise, fennel and pepper). These cheap spice mills give a much fresher taste than powder which loses its pungency and subtlety over time. Put the pork to one side.
Chop a medium-sized brown or white onion and a green pepper into one-inch squares. If using carrot for crunchy texture and colour, cut diagonally into irregular chunks; if using mushroom, choose small buttons, cut in half if necessary. You will end up with three equal-sized bowls of vegetable ready to be stir fried. Trim and shred a large clove of garlic and a thumb-sized piece of ginger.
Next, prepare your sauce. No bottles here. Chinese stir fry sauces are in fact glazes, and the meat is not swimming for its life in some watery melange. A sweet and sour sauce is simply a tablespoon of tomato puree, a tablespoon of dark soy (more suited to stronger meats/textures/flavours than light soy), two tablespoons of vinegar (rice or malt in my opinion), a teaspoon of sesame oil, a small tablespoon of sugar, and a heaped teaspoon of corn flour first slaked in a couple of tablespoons of water. Mixing this together gives us our sauce and it does not fill a small serving bowl. Some recipes advise a spoonful of rice wine, or orange or pineapple juice. As the saying goes, it’s a matter of taste.
Back to the meat. Beat a small egg and mix well with the pork. Get a freezer bag or equivalent, put about four tablespoons of plain white flour in, and drop your meat into it in small batches, shaking as you go so that it is all coated and ready to fry.
At this point, put your wok or frying pan on a high heat. When it’s hot, grind in a little salt and pepper, if only for the aroma – you’ll already have noticed that your kitchen is suffused with the vapours of vegetable and spice. Add your oil.
Now, I’m not a fan of deep frying. I prefer to shallow fry, stirring and flipping constantly to get even cooking. So put in three or four tablespoons of peanut or rapeseed oil, which have a high smoking point. When it frizzles the smallest test piece of anything, place your meat in until the surface is covered in one layer. Turn frequently to ensure all sides of the meat cube are golden then remove with a slotted spoon to waiting bowl. You may have to do two portions, depending on the size of your wok/pan. Drain and save any juices from your wok between fries, then dry and use fresh oil if necessary.
Keep the heat high throughout. You will have finished your meat in a matter of minutes. Before doing your vegetables check your pan. If juices have escaped from the meat, you will have a liquid, and probably some floating bits of batter. Pour off and save, wipe your wok and put two tablespoons of fresh oil in.
When this is very hot, add the veg. If using carrot, put it in first for a minute, stirring well, then add the onion for a minute until translucent, and then the pepper for two minutes. If using mushroom, add it last, for one minute. I like to add my shredded garlic and ginger half way through this process so it does not burn. At this point your vegetables should still have distinct flavour, colour and texture.
Keeping the heat high, add your meat, stirring consistently for two minutes to ensure thorough reheating of the meat and even distribution of ingredients. Pour in the sauce, stirring well to ensure the dish is evenly coated, and add any meat juices from earlier. In two minutes you will have a piquant and subtle dish, perfect for eating with boiled rice or whatever you fancy.
You may ask whether your food will burn being subject to such heat. Remember, as you add ingredients there is heat loss in the wok and as long as you keep the ingredients moving they will not stick to the bottom and burn. Sweet and sour pork has been much maligned but to me it is a good example of a simple, economical dish that characterises some of the key differences between Oriental and traditional English cuisine.
If you want to try Dave’s Sweet and Sour Pork for yourself, you will need:
(for two people)
Four slices belly pork, cubed
½ tspn Chinese five spice powder/ two twists Chinese spice mill
Medium sized brown or white onion
Carrot (quantity required)
Button mushrooms (quantity required)
1 large clove of garlic
Thumb-sized piece of ginger
1 small egg
4 tbspn plain white flour
3 or 4 tbspns peanut or rapeseed oil
For the sauce:
1 tbsn tomato puree
1 tbspn dark soy
2 tbspn rice/malt vinegar
1 tspn sesame oil
1 small tbsn sugar
1 heaped tspn of corn flour slaked in a 2 tbspn water