Sweet and sour pork is almost ubiquitous in Chinese restaurants specialising in the various regional cuisines, but the type you are most likely to encounter – at least at the inexpensive places – is heavy on the ketchup, canned pineapple and white vinegar. There’s nothing wrong with that version but it’s not subtle. When it’s good, sweet and sour pork has many balanced flavours. I learned to make it from a fantastic home cook in New York – he was the type who would buy a fresh fish in Chinatown and keep it alive in his bathtub, so he could kill it just before steaming it, and would preserve all types of fruits and vegetables to use in his cooking. His sweet and sour pork used sour plums he pickled himself (I buy mine, though).
Sweet and sour pork with lychees
The season for lychees is ending soon and if you can’t find them in the markets, use fresh pineapple instead; half a medium-sized one is enough. Peel and core the pineapple, then cut it into 1cm chunks. Sprinkle salt over the pineapple and mix, then leave in a colander placed over a bowl for about 30 minutes (the salt draws out the acidity). Rinse the pineapple thoroughly, then taste a small piece to check the salt has been sufficiently washed off; if it still tastes salty, continue to rinse and taste. Dry the pieces well before proceeding, adding the pineapple where you would the lychees in the original recipe.
Suen mui (sour plums) are available pickled in jars. Different brands vary in flavour and intensity, so you need to adjust the ingredients to balance the flavours.
750 grams slightly fatty boneless, skinless pork
30ml soy sauce
20ml rice wine
1 tsp fine sea salt
¾ tsp granulated sugar
Cornstarch, as needed
1 large egg
Cooking oil, for frying
1 onion (about 175 grams)
4 red, yellow or orange banana chillies (preferably a mix of colours), or another type of mild chilli
350 grams fresh lychees (peeled and pitted weight)
225 grams fresh large tomatoes
50 grams pickled ginger
50ml pickled ginger juice
12 pickled plums
About 30 grams granulated sugar
About 20ml rice vinegar
Cut the pork into two-bite chunks and put them in a bowl with the soy sauce, rice wine, salt, three-quarters of a teaspoon of granulated sugar and two teaspoons of cornstarch. Combine thoroughly then leave to marinate at room temperature for about an hour.
While the meat is marinating, prepare the other ingredients. Cut the onion and chillies into 1.5cm pieces. Tear or cut each lychee in half. Roughly chop the tomatoes (no need to skin them). If the pickled ginger is in chunks, slice it thinly. Remove and discard the pits from the pickled plums. Put the plums into a bowl and mash them with a fork, then mix in 30 grams of sugar, 20ml of rice vinegar and the pickled ginger juice. Taste the mixture and adjust the amount of sugar and vinegar so the flavour is balanced, neither too sweet nor too sour.
Mix the egg into the marinated pork, then add 50 grams of cornstarch and combine thoroughly so the pieces are lightly coated. Pour cooking oil to the depth of about 8cm in a wok and heat to 180 degrees Celsius. Fry the pork until the pieces are fully cooked (about four minutes). Do not crowd the wok, cook the meat in batches. Drain the pork on paper towels.
Pour the oil from the wok, then wash it and dry it. Heat the wok over a high flame and add about 30ml of cooking oil. Add the onion and chillies and stir-fry until slightly softened, then remove the ingredients from the wok. Add the tomatoes and cook until they soften and break into smaller pieces. Add the plum mixture, then simmer over a medium-high flame for several minutes, or until the tomatoes are almost dissolved. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasonings, if needed. Stir in about 60ml of hot water, then add the pork, lychees and pickled ginger and combine well. Mix in the onion and chillies, then turn the heat to medium and simmer, stirring often, until the sauce lightly coats the pork. Transfer the ingredients to a platter and serve immediately.