A love letter to sweet and sour pork
Even the worst sweet and sour pork is better than no sweet and sour pork, writes Sharon Lam.
I have eaten a lot of sweet and sour pork in my life. I ate it homemade for my 8th, 11th, 16th and 20th birthdays. I’ve eaten it in Chinese restaurants for Chinese people and Chinese restaurants for white people. I’ve eaten it as part of wedding banquets, I’ve eaten it in week-long periods of urban loneliness. I ate porcelain, plastic, polystyrene, paper, glass, iron. I ate it three times while writing this article. I ate it as chips. I ate it in Glasgow, I ate it in Dunedin and many other places in between.
After all, like Coca Cola, McDonald’s and disappointment, sweet and sour pork is everywhere. Chances are your nearest stockist is less than an hour away, whether you’re reading this in Greymouth or Gabon. Described by author Clarence Kwan as the “ultimate unifierthe dish is at home on the menu of every vaguely Asian takeout in the world as it is on the menu of a three-hour wedding dinner in Hong Kong. Everyone seems to love fried red food bits. Given its zigzag origin story, its universality is in its blood:
300 BC: People are starting to do fermented fish sauce in China.
1600-1900: During the the Qing dynastyearly versions of sweet and sour pork become a common summer dish in Guangdong and Fujian, made with rice vinegar, sugar and hawthorn berry jam.
1700: British merchants find fermented fish sauce in North Vietnam, where it is called “ke chiapto Hokkien. They take it home where it’s a hit.
1812: UK traders are trying to make local versions of the “ketchup» with mushrooms, which can still be bought todayor tomatoes.
1850s: The fish disappears as an ingredient in British ketchup recipes.
1876: In North America, Henry J. Heinz began using riper tomatoes and more vinegar than other ketchup manufacturers.
1905: Heinz has sold five million bottles of tomato ketchup.
Early 1900s: The ketchup is “return” imported in China, where local chefs incorporate it into their dishes. Its long shelf life, vibrant color and instant flavor make it a natural choice for sweet and sour dishes.
From 1900: Chinese immigrants move across the world to places like North America, the United Kingdom and New Zealand, bringing with them the sweet and sour ketchup-based pork we know today.
This back and forth across centuries, countries, and cultures has resulted in a lot of variations on sweet and sour pork. At one end are oversized soggy, radioactive red boogers, and at the other are light, crisp nuggets of vermilion dreams. Having eaten at every point on this spectrum across the earth, I have found that even the worst sweet and sour pork is better than no sweet and sour pork. No matter the quality, there are always four key elements:
Dough : It should always be crispy. Thick enough to give a good crunch but thin enough not to be lumpy or charade like meat. Therefore, the dish should always be cooked fresh and eaten as soon as possible, which is not the case when found in $7 mall buffets, although this version has its own charm. A version I ate once served the pieces over ice cubes to keep the batter crisp throughout the meal. Magically, the ice cream didn’t melt until all the pork was done. Eating the perfect texture bite after bite made me believe, briefly, in human progress.
Meat: Pork or pork substitute should be tender, moist and stand alone in its salt and umami – there is no direct salt in the sauce. Traditionally, pork spare ribs were used in the dish, and the spare ribs version is still found in many restaurants, though less so in take-out stores. Bone-in means the meat remains tender, while pork shoulder and loin may become overcooked and dry. Both are delicious if cooked well. My favorite pork-free version is at 54-year-old vegetarian restaurant Yuk Lung in Hong Kong. The vegan “shrimp” is a perfectly moist, non-fake taste substitute with an illegally satisfying mouthfeel. Perfectly beaten. I’ve never come across anything like this meat substitute anywhere and it earns its own craving.
The sauce: I ate the rainbow of sweet and sour sauces, from Professor Plum purple to sunburnt red. If it looks too red or too purple, it’s definitely non-ketchup food coloring and suggests the sauce can be pre-made, therefore less delicate and balanced in texture and flavor. But I’ve been fooled by this before. Like people, sometimes the most fake looks taste the most real, and vice versa. It’s the flavor rather than the color that’s important: it should taste sweet but not sickly, and have an acidity that speaks of citrus rather than pure sour. If done correctly, the sweet will balance out the meat’s inner umami and the sour will take the fried nature of the dish from fatty to luxurious.
The accompaniments: Probably the least important, and highly subjective, element. Personally, I’m a purist: I hate seeing carrots, tomatoes or corn. They shine brighter elsewhere. The classic sides in a Cantonese version are bell peppers, onions, and pineapples, while other Chinese regional versions will be much more minimal with just onions or sliced spring onion stalks, or forego vegetables altogether. The more stingy Cantonese versions will only have onions, and the less stingy versions will use canned pineapple instead of fresh. One version I ate was so keen to prove they didn’t use canned pineapple that they served the pineapple on the side with the skin intact.
Sweet and sour pork made its public debut in New Zealand around 80 years ago. The first record I found of the dish was a Dispatch of 1938 of Hong Kong, the journalist observing what the inhabitants ate. It was at this time that the definition of “Chinese restaurant” in New Zealand was in transition from meaning a Chinese-owned restaurant serving British food, to a Chinese-owned restaurant that served Chinese (or at least Pākehā-accessible Chinese) food to the public. In the 1960s (probably) Pākehā writers published their own sweet and sour pork recipes in newspapers, with the first record I have found of 1963and the most recent being 2022.
Today, very good and very average sweet and sour pork can be found in New Zealand. My experiences are skewed towards where I’ve lived and eaten the longest, but the best sweet and sour pork I’ve had in the country (double-checked for accuracy by my mother) is Benson’s at Christchurch. Theirs is the absolute classic Cantonese version, right down to the tricolor peppers. The taste is classic and the texture is why people order this dish from a sit-down restaurant so it can be eaten immediately. Joyful, just down the street and one of Christchurch’s most multicultural spots, comes in second. Even though they’ve been known to do wacky things like throw in celery and zucchini, their pork has always been cooked perfectly. Honorable mention goes to the inimitable KC Café in Wellington, for its late-night availability and impressive value for money.
Sweet and sour pork will never go out of fashion, because it has never been in fashion. It has always been about satisfaction and the capitalization of that satisfaction by jostling business owners, immigrants or not. One of many legends behind the dish’s Cantonese name, “goo lo yuk”, is that “goo lo” is the sound one makes when swallowing to stop drooling all over the table in anticipation of the dish (yuk means meat). I was goo-lo-ing all over my keyboard while writing this. It’s fried universality. Whether it’s purple, vegan or on ice, there’s a version for everyone. It’s satisfaction guaranteed at a million different prices, variations and settings. Bao sans serif bars come and go, but the sweet and sour pork is here to stay.