‘Sweet and Sour’ is synonymous with Chinese food. Sweet and Sour Pork is a world renowned Chinese dish, second maybe only to Kung Pao Chicken. The Chinese name of this dish is 糖醋里脊 (táng cù lǐ ji) and unlike the English one, it states ingredients rather than flavors. táng is sugar, cù is vinegar and lǐji is tenderloin or fillet. This distinct flavor and the unique appearance of these golden meat cutlets are an excellent demonstration of two very important principles of Chinese cooking – to change the flavor and appearance of the ingredients so it will be hard to guess what they are, and to make a dish which is not only delicious but also of beautiful combination of shape and color. This is probably why this dish has spread so quickly all over China.
Not many people know this but the English name ‘Sweet and Sour Pork’ is a common translation for 3 different dishes. All three are sweet and sour pork essentially, but they belong to different sub-cuisines of China.
Sweet and Sour Pork
The one named sugar-vinegar-tenderloin has been around the longest, and it’s believed to be the ancestor of all other variations.
Its origin is traced back to the area of Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces. Classic Sweet and Sour Pork is made with long and thick pieces of boneless meat served in a rich sauce which is relatively concentrated.
Cantonese Sweet and Sour Pork
The Chinese name of the Cantonese variation is 咕噜肉 (gū lāo ròu, sometime written 咕咾肉) or 甜酸肉 (tián suān ròu, sweet and sour meat). Cantonese Sweet and Sour Pork usually contains pineapple and therefore it is mostly referred to as 菠萝咕噜肉 (bō luó gū lāo ròu).
The Cantonese version is different not only because of the pineapple and occasional bell pepper (as you can see in the photo above). The meat is made differently too. The pieces are more round than long and they tend to be harder on the jaw.
Manchurian Sour and Sweet Pork
This version belongs to the sub-cuisine of Northeast China and its Chinese name is 锅包肉 (guō bāo ròu). China’s Northeast was formerly known as Manchuria and since it is much shorter a word, I decided to go with ‘Manchurian’ rather than ‘Northeastern Style’.
The meat in Manchurian Sour and Sweet Pork usually comes in big slices. As the name indicates the sauce is sour more sour than sweet.
Sweet and Sour Muslim Style
táng cù lǐ ji is also on the menu in many Muslim restaurants. Muslim Sweet and Sour Pork? How can that be? Well, that’s because there’s nothing in the Chinese name of the dish which means pork. The Muslim version is made with halal meat (either chicken or beef).
I personally find the sweet and sour sauce to go better with chicken, and many Muslim restaurants seem to agree with me because sweet and sour chicken is more common. The fact chicken is cheaper than beef might have something to with that as well.
Sweet and Sour Tofu
All of you vegetarians out there don’t need to worry. There’s a sweet and sour dish which is tofu based. It’s called 脆皮日本豆腐 (cuì pí rì běn dòu fu) which means crispy skin Japanese tofu. Japanese tofu is the Chinese name for a kind of soft creamy tofu more commonly known as silken tofu.
By the way, another Chinese name for silken tofu is ‘egg tofu’. Vegans, I am sorry but you know what that means…
Sweet and Sour Pork with Pineapple and Manchurian Sweet and Sour Pork has been recently added to FOODragon.