Japanese Sweet and Sour Chicken
While Sweet and Sour Chicken is best known as a Chinese takeout favorite, there are variations of the classic in other Asian countries, and today I want to show you how to make a Japanese version of this dish.
Popularized by a restaurant called Ootoya, this colorful take on sweet and sour is loaded with a rainbow of colorful vegetables and tender, juicy chunks of chicken marinated in soy sauce and ginger. The sweet and sour sauce combines black vinegar, soy sauce, and sugar to create a sweet, sour, savory glaze that looks beautiful and is lip-smackingly delicious.
Table of contents
Why This Recipe Works?
- The chicken in this recipe is karaage (Japanese fried chicken), so this can be made with leftovers.
- Flash-frying the vegetables preserves their color and texture.
- Coating the vegetables with a thin layer of potato starch creates a layer for the sweet and sour sauce to stick to while thickening it into a glaze.
- Using a blend of black vinegar with rice vinegar provides the rich earthy flavor of the former with the distinct tartness of the latter.
Ingredients for Japanese Sweet and Sour Chicken
- Chicken - This sweet and sour chicken recipe works best with skin-on thigh meat, a more flavorful cut than chicken breasts. The skin also helps to keep the meat juicy, and since most of the fat renders out as it fries, it ends up nice and crispy. If chicken isn't your thing, this will work with other proteins such as pork, or even tofu (the FAQ for how to make this vegan).
- Soy Sauce - Soy sauce is a more flavorful way of adding salt to this dish and I use it in both the marinade and the sauce. Any Japanese-style soy sauce such as Kikkoman will work. If you want to cut back on the amount of salt, you can use a low-sodium soy sauce.
- Sake - Sake is a rich source of glutamic acid; this is a compound responsible for creating the taste of umami. By adding sake to food and then cooking it, the alcohol burns off, but the glutamic acids and flavor of the sake are left behind, imbuing the food with loads of umami. This is why sake is added to both the marinade for the chicken and to the sweet and sour sauce. If you can't find it, a pinch of MSG is the best substitute for the umami, but it won't provide the sake flavor.
- Sugar - The sweet component of sweet and sour sauce comes from sugar. I like evaporated cane sugar, but any sweetener with a milk flavor will work.
- Vinegar - The sour component of the sauce is introduced by vinegar, and I like using a blend of black vinegar (黒酢 - kurozu) and rice vinegar (米酢 - komezu). The black vinegar has an earthy flavor, mild tartness, and a slightly sweet taste and it has much more complexity than the ketchup that's often used in sweet and sour sauce. Japanese black vinegar is made from rice and koji, but Chinese black vinegar (which can be made from other grains) will work. The rice vinegar lends a more assertive sourness. If you can't find it, apple cider vinegar will work.
- Ginger - Some grated ginger masks any gaminess in the chicken while adding flavor, garlic would be another good option here.
- Potato Starch - Potato starch coats the chicken and some of the vegetables. It acts as a primer that helps the sweet and sour sauce adhere to the ingredients, but it also helps to thicken the sauce into a glaze. Not all starches are the same; I highly recommend looking for potato starch as it crisps better than cornstarch and does not get as gummy when it starts to cool.
- Vegetables - The original Ootoya version of this dish uses eggplant, onions, carrots, lotus root, potatoes, and green beans. I like using eggplant, lotus root, sweet potatoes, carrots, and green bell peppers in my version. Any veggie that fries well and lends color and texture to the dish will work, such as zucchini, red onions, or a winter squash such as kabocha or butternut. You could also add pineapple chunks if you want to, but this doesn't need to be flash fried.
How to Make Japanese Sweet and Sour Chicken
You first want to cut up the chicken into largish bite-sized pieces and marinate them in soy sauce, sake, and ginger. Ideally, you want to marinate it in the fridge for a few hours, but even ten minutes is better than nothing.
For the vegetables, I like to cut the cylindrical vegetables (eggplant, sweet potato, and carrot) into an oblique cut, known as rangiri (乱切り) in Japan. This is done by slicing off bite-sized pieces at a 45° angle and then turning it a quarter turn between each cut. You can watch the video below to see how this is done.
Lotus root oxidizes once cut, so you first want to prepare a bowl of acidified water by squeezing some lemon into the water or adding vinegar. Then you can peel and slice the lotus root into ¼-inch thick wheels before soaking them in the acidic water.
To prep the peppers, I like to slice into the peppers' indentations, where the seeds and membranes are. Then you can segment the pepper and easily cut away the white membranes and seeds. Once the peppers are trimmed, cut them into bite-sized squares.
Drain and dry off the lotus root just before you fry them, and then toss the vegetables individually with a small amount of potato starch to give them a very thin coating of starch.
The vegetables each take a different amount of time to cook. Once you have a pot of oil preheated to 340°F (170°C), fry them according to the directions below:
- Green peppers - To preserve the vibrant color of the peppers, you only want to fry them for about twenty seconds. Add them in, give them a few stirs, and then quickly drain them.
- Eggplant - After adding the eggplant to the oil, make sure the skin side is facing down so the purple anthocyanins have a chance to set, so they don't discolor. The eggplant should take about a minute and a half to two minutes to cook.
- Lotus root - You want to retain the crisp texture of the lotus root, so flash fry these for about one minute.
- Potatoes & carrots - These will take around the same amount of time and can be fried together. Depending on how large you cut them, they should cook through in about three to four minutes.
Once each vegetable has cooked through, transfer it to a cooling rack lined with paper towels to drain.
While the vegetables are frying, you can prepare the chicken by dusting each piece with a generous potato starch coating. Try and keep the skin on the outside of the chicken while balling the chicken up using your fingertips. This keeps the chicken pieces roughly the same thickness, so they fry up in about the same amount of time.
Fry the chicken in the oil after the vegetables are done for about four to five minutes, turning them over several times. When the chicken is golden brown and crisp, drain them on the paper towel-lined cooling rack.
To finish the sweet and sour chicken, add the sugar, sake, and soy sauce to a large skillet over medium-high heat and bring the mixture to a rolling boil over high heat. When the sugar has dissolved and the sauce no longer smells like alcohol, pour in the two kinds of vinegar along with the fried chicken and vegetables.
Toss to coat the chicken and veggies with the black vinegar sauce. When it's thickened into a glaze, the Japanese-style sweet and sour chicken is done.
Because it's so colorful, it doesn't really need any garnishes, but you can chop up some green onions and sprinkle them on top, or use some toasted sesame seeds if you like.
Other Japanese Chicken Recipes
Sweet and sour chicken is a generic term that encompasses several different dishes inspired by Chinese cuisine in Japan. This recipe is for Niwatori To Yasai No Kurozu An (鶏と野菜の黒酢あん), which literally means, "chicken and vegetables with black vinegar gravy." The dish was initially popularized by the Japanese chain restaurant Ootoya, where it is sold as both a teishouku (meal set) as well as a bento. The chicken is marinated and coated in starch before being deep-fried, along with an accompanying medley of vegetables such as carrots, onions, and potatoes before they're glazed in a sweet and sour black vinegar sauce.
Black vinegar is an inky black vinegar originating from the city of Zhenjiang in eastern China. The Chinese version uses wheat, rice bran, and glutinous rice. In the mid-1970s, a Japanese brewery began producing black vinegar locally using 100% brown rice and marketed it as a health tonic to be taken by the spoonful. It's since become a popular ingredient; however, it tends to be milder in flavor than Chinese black vinegar.
Everything except the chicken in this sweet and sour recipe is plant-based, so you can easily make this vegetarian and vegan friendly by replacing the fried chicken with my tofu karaage. The vegetables and black vinegar sweet and sour sauce can be prepared without modifications.
- 100 grams Japanese eggplant (1 small one)
- 100 grams lotus root (½ rhizome)
- 100 grams Japanese sweet potato (½ small one)
- 100 grams carrot (about ⅔ of a large carrot)
- 100 grams mild green pepper (1 or 2 small ones)
- vegetable oil (for deep frying)
For Sweet & Sour Sauce
- 3 tablespoons evaporated cane sugar
- 3 tablespoons sake
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 3 tablespoons black vinegar
- 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
- Cut the chicken into large bite-sized pieces and marinate with the soy sauce, sake, and grated ginger. It's best to let the chicken marinate for a few hours.
- To prepare the vegetables, cut the eggplant, sweet potato, and carrot into an oblique cut by slicing bite-sized pieces off at a 45° angle and then rotating the ingredient a quarter turn between each cut.
- Peel and slice the lotus root into ¼-inch thick rounds and soak them in water acidified with lemon juice or vinegar.
- Remove the seeds and membranes from the peppers and cut them into squares.
- Preheat 1-inch vegetable oil in a high-sided pot to 340°F (170°C). Prepare a cooling rack by lining it with a few sheets of paper towels.
- Drain the lotus root and dry them well with paper towels. Dust all of the vegetables except the peppers in a thin layer of potato starch.
- Fry the vegetables one at a time. The peppers take about 20 seconds, the eggplant will take about 1.5-2 minutes, the lotus root will take about 1 minute, and the sweet potatoes and carrots will take about 3-4 minutes. Drain the vegetables on the paper towel-lined rack as they cook.
- To fry the chicken, dust them in a thick coating of potato starch and then fry them for about 4-5 minutes until they're golden brown and crisp. Drain the chicken on the paper towel-lined rack as well.
- To make the sweet and sour sauce, add the sugar, sake, and soy sauce to a 12-inch frying pan and bring the mixture to a boil.
- Once the sugar has dissolved and it no longer smells like alcohol, add the black vinegar, rice vinegar, and fried chicken and vegetables to the pan.
- Toss everything together to glaze with the sauce. Once the black vinegar sauce has thickened and coated everything, serve the Japanese sweet and sour chicken with rice.