Chicken? Why not pork? Sweet sour pork has been a favorite with my family for as long as I can recall. I loved the dish as a child and my own daughters adored it since they were little. But my older daughter, Sam, stopped eating mammals several years ago so I learned to substitute chicken for pork in so many of her childhood favorites. As it turned out, sweet sour chicken is just as lovely as sweet sour pork.
There are as many versions of sweet sour chicken as there are cooks. My benchmarks have always been 1) chicken that doesn’t lose its coating when picked up from the serving plate and 2) a sauce that’s just thick enough to coat the chicken without gluing them together. To achive that, I have three essential tips for making this dish.
Marinate the chicken. Why? Isn’t the sweet sour sauce enough to flavor the chicken? The surface, yes, but not the innermost portion of meat. To make sure that every piece of chicken is flavored all the way through, marinating them is the way to go. There simply is no substitute for patience while waiting for the chicken to soak up the flavors in the marinade.
Coat the marinated chicken in starch, not flour, before frying. Why? If you use wheat flour, the moment the fried chicken pieces touch the sauce, the surface turns soggy fast. When you use starch, the crust stays crisp until you’ve demolished all the sweet sour chicken in the serving bowl.
Resist the urge to use starch to thicken the sauce. Why? When you don’t add starch to the sauce, when you thicken it naturally by allowing the sugar to caramelize, you get a syrup. That syrup that you lightly coat the chicken with during the last stage of cooking turns crisp off the heat. And that helps tremendously in assuring that your sweet sour chicken does not get soggy on the dining table.
Sweet Sour Chicken
To marinate the chicken
- 8 chicken thigh fillets
- 2 teaspoons salt
- ½ teaspoon ground pepper
- 2 teaspoons Chinese five-spice powder
To cook the chicken
- cooking oil
- ¼ cup tapioca starch - or potato or corn starch (please, not all-purpose flour!)
- 1 bell pepper - deseeded and diced
- 1 stalk celery - thinly sliced
- 1 cup fresh pineapple chunks
For the sweet sour sauce
- ¼ cup white sugar
- 2 tablespoons mirin
- 3 tablespoons rice vinegar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon grated garlic
- ½ teaspoon grated ginger
- 1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
Marinate the chicken
- Wipe the chicken thigh fillets dry and cut into bite-size pieces.
- Place the chicken in a bowl and mix in the salt, pepper and five-spice powder.
- Cover the bowl and leave the chicken to marinate in the fridge for at least an hour.
Fry the chicken
- In a frying pan or wok, heat enough cooking oil to reach a depth of at least two inches.
- Toss the chicken in starch.
- Fry the chicken, in batches if your pan is on the small side, until golden and crisp.
- Move the cooked chicken to a strainer or rack.
Stir fry the vegetables
- Pour off the oil leaving only a teaspoonful.
- Stir fry bell pepper and celery for 30 seconds (see notes after the recipe).
- Scoop out the vegetables and transfer to a plate.
Make the sauce
- In the same pan, heat the sugar, mirin, rice vinegar and salt until syrupy.
- Stir in the garlic, ginger and hoisin sauce.
- Continue cooking the sauce until thick.
Assemble the sweet sour chicken
- Add the chicken, vegetables and pineapple chunks to the sauce.
- Cook, tossing, until everything is heated through.
- Serve the sweet sour chicken with rice.