I once wrote a post about my feelings about sweet and sour pork. It's never been one of my favorites, mostly because of all the additives (like corn syrup, food coloring and MSG) that go into the typical version of the dish. Bent on making it better, I came up with my own version with a light potato starch coating and a sauce made from black vinegar.
The thing is, the thick batter and viscous cherry red sauce are hallmarks of this Chinese-American classic. Making a black vinegar sauce may taste a lot better, but it alters the soul of the dish, turning it into another dish entirely. So how do you make this iconic dish better?
Well, I've been experimenting again and I think I've come up with a solution. The first thing is to make the meat taste better. In most versions of sweet and sour pork, the meat is minimally marinated (if at all) before being battered and fried. I like to marinate the meat in soy sauce, oyster sauce, chinese wine and ginger juice to give the pork itself some full-bodied flavor.
For the cut of meat, most recipes call for pork loin, but because loin is so lean, frying it gives it a texture akin to damp sawdust by the time you get the batter nice and browned. That's why I like using pork shoulder. It's a more flavorful cut with more fat, making it perfect for this sweet and sour pork. If you're worried about the extra calories, you probably shouldn't be making this dish in the first place.
For the coating I went back and forth. Personally I'm not a fan of heavily battered things being coated in a sauce that makes the batter soggy. That's why I skip the batter for a light coating of potato starch in my black vinegar pork recipe. But having a thick pillowy batter that absorbs the sauce is part of sweet and sour pork's identity. So I've gone with a batter here. If you want something with a thinner coating just skip the batter and dust the marinated pork in potato starch.
Lastly for the sauce, I use ketchup to give it a bit more flavor as well as it's trademark hue. To thicken the sauce, I like using potato starch instead of cornstarch. I know someone is going to ask why so I'll address it now. For frying, potato starch turns out lighter and more crisp, and for thickening, it gives sauces a satiny texture leaving clear sauces transparent. Cornstarch on the other hand creates a heavier coating when fried, as a thickener, it tends to have a gloppy texture and turns clear sauces cloudy. That's why I almost always prefer using potato starch to cornstarch.
- Marinate the pork in the soy sauce, oyster daus, shaoxing wine, and ginger juice for at least 15 minutes.
- Prepare the sweet and sour sauce by whisking together the water, rice vinegar ketchup, sugar, potato starch and salt and set aside.
- Cut all the vegetables and have them ready. Prepare a paper towel lined wire rack.
- Add 1-inch of oil to a heavy bottomed pot and heat to 340 degrees F (170 C).
- Whisk together the flour, 2 tablespoons of potato starch, and baking powder.
- In a liquid measuring cup, whisk the egg until the yolk and white are evenly mixed. Add enough cold water to make a total of 2/3 cup minus 2 tablespoons liquid.
- Add the liquid to the flour and stir until there are no large lumps remaining, but do not overmix.
- Fry the pork by coating each piece in batter and adding to the pre-heated oil. Fry until each piece is golden brown and then transfer to the prepared rack.
- Fry the vegetables until bright in color and just barely cooked and transfer them to the prepared rack.
- To finish give the sauce a stir to combine any starch that has settled to the bottom and pour it into a clean frying pan over high heat. Bring the mixture to a boil and cook until it is thick. Add the pork and vegetables and toss to coat evenly with sauce.