Thursday, June 21, 2012

Sweet and Sour Pork

At the buffet parties thrown at our old house, a perennial dish on the table would have been 'Sweet and Sour Pork'.

As a young associate working at a food company, one of my projects was to launch 'sweet and sour' as a popular Chinese sauce.  I was stubbornly skeptical that it was Chinese at all.  I rudely assumed that it was a gwei-lo favorite simply because it was the closest thing to ketchup.

Many years later, I met my husband's family friends in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  They were a tight-knit community of scientists whose families were displaced during the Communist revolution and therefore spread to Taiwan and Hong Kong.  One of them, Mrs. Chu, was terribly proud of her 'sweet and sour pork'.  She attributed her job promotion to the flavorful dish's hypnotic influence on her boss.  When I gave her my cookbook, I tested my recipe one more time to make sure that it would pass muster when she tried it.  Mrs. Chu had convinced me that the sauce indeed had a Chinese heritage, if I could find it in the middle of the desert, in the southwest of the USA.

Sweet and sour sauce was used for the popular Westlake fish - a legendary Hangzhou, Zhejiang dish which I had the privilege of trying at its original destination.....the restaurant fronting the lake itself with the carp caught from its source.  The sauce looked entirely different from the familiar orange goo we have come to associate sweet and sour sauce with. But the complex twist of two sensations remains the same.

There is a story about a younger brother who had protected his elder brother's wife from a covetous rascal.  The rascal had killed the elder brother and the younger tried to retaliate.  Unsuccessful, he had to run away from authorities.  In gratitude, the sister-in-law prepared a fish dish with sugar and vinegar and reminded him, "I made it sweet and sour so that you will not forget how your brother died.  If you have a sweet life in the future, recall the sourness of the past and the lives of those who have been bullied."  He went on to become a official and brought to justice the man who had killed his older brother.

In my recipe, I suggested pork shoulder which is a nice tender cut.  Nothing to do with the sauce but with the cut of meat, I recently had a really delicious  roasted pork chop at Maggie Jones, a quaint English restaurant just off Kensington Palace.  The manager told me that 'Maggie Jones', an establishment that started in the 60s, was named after Princess Margaret right after she married Antony Armstrong-Jones. The couple had lived at the palace. The restaurant continues to be the local haunt of the royal family to this day.

Sweet and Sour Pork

The sauce ingredients listed below bear testament to a colonial heritage.  I believe this recipe was adapted by a Hainanese chef.  These chefs, largely behind the stoves of private colonial clubs, homes of British civil servants and kitchens of army barracks, pioneered the art of marrying British food products like HP Sauce with Chinese ingredients. 

You can also substitute the 300g or 10.5 ounces of pork with the same amount of fish fillet or 600g or 1 pound 5.5 ounces of large prawns.  In this instance, leave out the sodium bicarbonate and water to the marinade. 

12 servings

300g or 10.5 ounces pork shoulder
1/4 teaspoon soda bicarbonate
1 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon water
1 egg yolk
1/2 tablespoon cornflour
6 cups oil for frying, preferably peanut oil
Cornflour for dredging

Ingredients for sauce
10 tablespoons water
1½ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon sesame oil
4 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons tomato ketchup
1 tablespoon Lea and Perrins sauce
1 tablespoon A1 or HP Sauce
1 ½ tablespoons vinegar
½ tablespoon chili sauce, preferably Lingham’s

Ingredients for slurry
1½ tablespoon cornflour
2 tablespoons water

1 large onion, skinned and cut into wedges
3 stalks spring onions, cut into 1 inch or 2.5 cm pieces
1 red chili, seeded and cut into shreds
1 cucumber, skinned and cored, sliced finely
1 tomato, cut into wedges

Cut the pork into 2.5 cm or 1 inch cubes and marinate in the sodium bicarbonate, salt, sugar, water and egg yolks.  Sprinkle the cornflour and mix well to coat.  Leave aside for at least 15 minutes. 

Meanwhile, prepare the sauce by combining all the sauce ingredients.  Prepare the slurry and set aside separately. 

Heat a deep Dutch oven or wok and add in the oil.   Dredge the marinated pork in the cornflour and deep fry until lightly golden and crispy, turning once over halfway through.  Remove and transfer to a tray lined with absorbent paper. 

Fry the pork a second time for crispiness.  Transfer to a serving dish.

Remove the oil, leaving only 2 tablespoons aside.  Stir fry the onion wedges.  Pour in the gravy, bring to a boil and then lower to simmer.  Add the slurry a bit at a time to thicken.  Pour the gravy over the fried pork and garnish with the spring onions, red chili, cucumber and tomato.  Serve immediately.

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