Taking the Sour With the Sweet

A taste for sweet and sour is shared by people in diverse areas of the globe. In Poland, stuffed cabbage is cooked in sweet and sour tomato sauce. The Dutch like sweet and sour red cabbage with apples, the Germans prepare cabbage with raisins, and Ashkenazi Jews are fond of sweet and sour fish. Europeans cook poultry with prunes or raisins and finish the sauce with vinegar and sugar. To accompany game, they love sweet and sour sauces made with red currant jelly and either wine vinegar or lemon juice.

In the Middle East, Syrians like sweet and sour okra, while sweet and sour winter squash with raisins is a specialty of the Kurds. Iranians prepare meatball soup with prunes, dried apricots and walnuts seasoned with sugar and vinegar.

But by far our most popular image of sweet and sour comes from Chinese cuisine. We go to Chinese restaurants and feast on sweet and sour fish, pork or chicken. Yet many of us don't realize how easy sweet and sour sauce is to make.

One of my favorite versions is based on a simple formula--equal amounts of ketchup, sugar, vinegar and soy sauce. It is easy not only to prepare but also to remember. Indeed, it's one of the fastest sauces to make, essentially a mixture of four ingredients. The sauce keeps the shopping list brief too, as it's made of ingredients you most likely have in the pantry. This tasty sauce has another virtue: It's fat-free.


To vary the basic recipe, enhance the flavor of sweet and sour sauce with chopped fresh or sauteed ginger or garlic. Add bottled hot pepper sauce or chile flakes to make it spicy. Or substitute honey for the sugar or orange juice for the vinegar.

Use sweet and sour sauce as a dipping sauce to accompany a variety of foods, from fried fish to barbecued chicken to broiled eggplant. Serve with plain steamed shrimp as an alternative to cocktail sauce. Even raw vegetables, such as carrot sticks, cauliflower florets and sliced mushrooms, benefit from being dunked in the sauce.

Sweet and sour sauce is fabulous for glazing grilled chicken wings. For this purpose I add more ketchup so that the sauce adheres well to the chicken.


You can also braise diced chicken breasts in the sauce for a tasty, low-fat entree. When you have leftover roast chicken, turkey or pork, heat the sliced meat and top with warm sweet and sour sauce for an almost instant entree. To complete the meal, serve the sweet and sour chicken or meat with steamed rice and a boiled or stir-fried green vegetable, such as broccoli or asparagus.


1/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup vinegar

1/4 cup ketchup

1/4 cup soy sauce

In bowl thoroughly mix sugar, vinegar, ketchup and soy sauce. Serve hot or at room temperature as sauce or dip or to accompany vegetables or roast meats. Makes generous 3/4 cup, or 2 to 4 servings.


This is a quick, easy and low-fat dish. The sauce flavors the chicken and keeps it moist as it cooks.


1 1/4 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts

1 tablespoon oil

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup white or red wine vinegar

1/4 cup ketchup

1/4 cup soy sauce

1/4 teaspoon Asian hot sauce or to taste, optional

1 1/4 teaspoons cornstarch

1 tablespoon water

Trim visible fat from chicken and cut meat into 1-inch cubes. Heat oil in wok or saute pan. Add chicken and saute, stirring, over medium heat, 1 minute. Cover and saute 3 minutes, stirring once or twice.

In bowl thoroughly mix sugar, vinegar, ketchup, soy sauce and hot sauce. Add to chicken in pan and mix well. Bring to simmer. Cover and cook over low heat until chicken is tender, 5 minutes. Chicken is done when color is no longer pink. Cut into thick piece to check.

Blend cornstarch and 1 tablespoon water in small cup. Add to simmering sauce in center of pan, then quickly stir into remaining sauce. Heat until bubbling. Serve hot. Makes 4 servings.


Chicken wings like these have become one of the best-loved American appetizers. The wings are briefly roasted, then brushed with the sauce and baked. Instead of chicken wings, you can use drumsticks.


2 pounds chicken wings



White pepper

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1/4 cup ketchup

2 tablespoons sugar

2 teaspoons peeled and minced ginger root

2 garlic cloves, minced

1/3 cup chicken broth or water

1 teaspoon cornstarch

Few drops chile oil or cayenne pepper

Orange or kiwi slices for garnish, optional

Cut off wing tips and reserve to make stock. Cut wings apart at joint. Lightly oil roasting pan and place wings in pan in 1 layer. Season to taste with salt and white pepper on both sides. Roast at 400 degrees until meat is no longer pink (cut in thickest part to check), 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine vinegar, soy sauce, ketchup, sugar, ginger root, garlic, broth and cornstarch in small saucepan and mix well. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until sauce thickens and comes to simmer. Add chile oil to taste.

Drain off fat from pan of wings. Brush wings lightly with sauce and bake 5 minutes. Turn wings over and brush with sauce. Bake until wings are glazed and browned, 5 to 10 minutes longer. Place wings on serving platter and garnish with orange slices. Accompany with remaining sauce for dipping. Makes 4 to 5 appetizer servings.

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