Sweet and Sour Chicken is one of the most popular takeaway dishes in the UK, regularly making the top 3 in polls conducted by the media. If truth be told, I haven’t met a takeaway sweet and sour chicken that I could eat! It’s always cloyingly sweet and a frighteningly bright red in colour!
But it’s one of my late husband’s favourites, along with lemon and orange chicken. So, one day, I decided to educate my husband’s palate with the real thing, the way I grew up eating it at countless Chinese stalls, and also, the way my mum used to make it. Mum used to love using fish fingers for it too!
You’ll see that the sweet and sour chicken is very similar to the American Chinese General Tso’s Chicken (image below) in its flavouring: it’s tangy and it’s sweet. What’s different is the complete lack of heat.
Here in the UK, as a takeaway dish, sweet and sour chicken comes in 3 forms:
- batterless, the way we are making it today
- Hong Kong style, battered, like in the General Tso’s chicken
- Sweet and Sour Chicken Balls, chicken wrapped in dough and fried, with an almost radioactive red sauce on the side, to be poured over
If you like your chicken battered, just head on over to the General Tso’s recipe, and follow the recipe for the battered chicken, and use the sauce and the rest of the recipe here.
So our homemade sweet and sour chicken recipe today, is simplicity itself, and so much better than anything shop bought. These are the steps to the recipe:
- marinate the chicken
- make the sauce
- brown the chicken
- cook the recipe
Sounds easy, doesn’t it?
This sweet and sour recipe is very tangy (sour – as you would expect), with just the right amount of sweet, that’s provided by the small amount of sugar we use, the tomato ketchup, as well as the juice from the canned pineapple we use. After you’ve made it the first time, you can play around with it, make it sweeter if you like.
Cooking Sweet and Sour Chicken at Home
Sweet and sour chicken often contains pineapple pieces, adding to the whole fruity nature of the dish. You can use fresh pineapple if you like, but I rather prefer using canned pineapple for this. The flavour and sweetness is just perfect, and of course, it’s convenient!
Edit: because of a question from a reader – omit the pineapple, if you are not a fan. The resulting dish won’t be as fruity, and also less sweet. Sweet and Sour chicken without pineapple, is not an uncommon dish. If omitting the pineapple, increase the sugar to 2 tsp, instead of the one here.
Shaoxing Rice Wine
This is from the region of Shaoxing and made with fermented rice, and is a light brown to dark brown colour. You can use any rice wine (not vinegar) as substitute, or, failing that, dry sherry is a perfect substitute.
Vinegars made from fermented rice are very popular all over East Asia, and come in all sorts of colours, from clear to brown, to red or black, as in the Chinese Black Vinegar. Use a clear rice vinegar in this recipe, for a lighter taste. If you can’t find rice vinegar, any clear vinegar will do.
We use 2 different types of soy sauces here: light and dark. Click here to read about the different types of soy sauces. You should be able to get both fairly easily these days. Here in the UK, they are found everywhere.
Sweet and Sour Sauce Consistency
Because of the cornflour (cornstarch), a very popular ingredient in Chinese cooking, the sauce takes on a thick, silky feel and look. How thick you like your sauce to be, is a matter of taste and preference.
I usually make the sauce lighter, because my kids love lots of sauce on their rice. When the sauce is thick, it doesn’t go as far. Take a look at the pictures on this page.
- The sweet and sour chicken sauce on the plate (the first 3 pics) is thicker, and was made with 1 Tbsp of cornflour (cornstarch).
- The sweet and sour chicken sauce in the bowl (pic above) is lighter (thinner), and was made with just 1 tsp of cornflour (cornstarch).
And that, people, is about as complicated as this popular dish is! Perfect for Chinese New Year, which is just over 2 weeks away. Let’s get to work! Or is that play?
Homemade Sweet and Sour Chicken Recipe
- 500 g (1.1 lb) chicken breasts
- 2 cloves garlic
- ½ a red capsicum (bell pepper)
- ½ a green or yellow capsicum (bell pepper)
- 4 spring onions (scallions)
- 400 g (14 oz) canned pineapple in juice (not syrup)
- 2 Tbsp sesame oil
- 2 tsp light soy sauce
- 2 tsp Shaoxing rice wine/dry sherry
- 1 Tbsp cornflour (or ½ Tbsp for a thinner sauce)
- pinch of white pepper
- Chop up the chicken into little bite size portions, place in a bowl, and add all the marinade ingredients in. Mix thoroughly, and leave aside while you get the other ingredients ready.
- Chop up the garlic fairly finely.
- Slice the capsicums (bell peppers) up into roughly 2.5cm (1″) squares.
- Slice the spring onions (scallions) into 5cm (2″) lengths.
- Mix all the sauce ingredients in a medium bowl and set aside.
Cooking the sweet and sour chicken
- Heat 1 Tbsp of the sesame oil in a large wok on high heat, and when almost smoking, brown the chicken pieces for about 2 minutes, turning and flipping. We are not cooking the chicken, just adding a touch of colour and flavour, so lightly browned is what we are after. Tip out onto a plate.
- Heat the second Tbsp of oil in the same wok, still on high heat, it’ll only take a few seconds. Then fry the garlic, peppers and spring onions (scallions) for 30 seconds.
- Add the sauce, stir and bring to a boil.
- When the sauce is bubbling at the edges, add the chicken, stir, and bring back to a boil. Then lower the heat down and simmer for 5 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through. As we are using small chicken breast portions, 5 minutes should be enough. That’s it, serve hot.