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Tony Tan's guide to making sweet and sour pork

It's sweet and sour but not as we know it. Tony Tan reveals the true brilliance of this much-loved Cantonese classic.

By Tony Tan
  • 20 mins preparation
  • 15 mins cooking
  • Serves 4
  • Print
Sweet and sour pork
For many Chinese people, especially those from Guangzhou province, sweet and sour pork is a memorable part of their childhood. A dish that speaks of nostalgia and comfort, it's universally loved by my Chinese friends and by me. So I was shocked when some of my Aussie friends said it was stodgy and unpalatable.
Surprised by this, I decided to visit my suburban Chinese takeaway. I was stunned. One whiff of this gloopy mess called sweet and sour pork was enough to make me recoil in horror. Looking more like a radioactive cherry-red sauce, it bore no resemblance to the ones I grew up with. What's more, the sauce was way too sweet. As for the sour component, it was so vinegary I could barely eat it. The gristly cubes of pork were equally bad. I have no idea how this Westernised version came about, but it's totally different to the ones in China and South East Asia.
Sweet and sour pork is a classic Cantonese dish. Its fame is such that the Chinese call it gu lao rou, meaning pork with a long history. Perhaps this has something to do with its origin, which some Chinese writers have linked to the famed sweet and sour spare ribs from Jiangsu province. Called tang cu pai gu, it's a favourite with the folks of Jiangsu for its distinctive vinegary, sweet flavour. From here, it travelled to Guangzhou (Canton) and morphed into the dish we know today.
I don't remember the exact moment when I made my first gu lao rou (gu lou yok in Cantonese). But I know I learnt to make it when my parents had their Cantonese restaurant in Malaysia. At that time, we had a great Chinese chef, who told me this dish is one of the benchmarks of Cantonese cooking. He said a good sweet and sour sauce should be light and the pieces of pork should be hot, crisp and flavoursome, and served immediately to maintain the crispness.
To achieve the fine balance of flavours, he used only fresh pineapple and capsicum for colour along with chillies for lingering heat. Since then I have used it as a yardstick whenever I make this dish, or whenever I dine at a Chinese restaurant.
Some of the best sweet and sour pork I've eaten was in Hong Kong, served in both the most basic dai pai dong - food stalls - and starred restaurants. According to chef Tsang Chiu Lit at Ming Court restaurant, the secret to a great sauce is to use only rice vinegar, for its low acidity. I can only concur on this point. Once you've made this version, I promise you'll never go back to a mediocre Chinese restaurant for sweet and sour pork again.
Making sweet and sour pork isn't difficult, but, as with any good cooking, it requires planning and timing.

Step 1: Slice pork into bite-sized pieces

The first thing is to select your cut of pork. For me, pork neck is best because it has a good distribution of lean meat and fat. Slice it into bite-sized pieces.
Step 1: Slice pork into bite-sized pieces Photo: Ben Hansen

Step 2: Marinate the pork

Next, marinate the pork in good Shaoxing wine, soy sauce and five-spice powder to lock in the flavours (essentials in your arsenal of Asian pantry staples) . Short of making your own five-spice - most commercial ones are poor quality-wise - if you come across Deer Brand five-spice, it will make your dish sing. A beaten egg thrown in at this stage makes coating the meat with flour much easier later.
Step 2: Marinate the pork Photo: Ben Hansen

Step 3: Meanwhile, make the sweet and sour sauce

Step 3: Meanwhile, make the sweet and sour sauce Photo: Ben Hansen

Step 4: Prepare your vegetables

There are no hard and fast rules as to which greens to use, but it's important to include garlic, onion and spring onion for the scent. Most Cantonese cooks incorporate capsicum, pineapple and sometimes tomatoes into the mix.
Step 4: Prepare your vegetables Photo: Ben Hansen

Step 5: Deep-fry the pork

When you're ready to cook, have oil in a wok ready to deep-fry the pork, and the rice and potato flour mixture ready to coat the marinated pork before frying. Deep-fry the pork in batches until golden brown, then remove the cubes with a slotted spoon and drain them on paper towels. (In better Chinese restaurants, the pork is deep-fried twice to maintain its crispness).
Step 5: Deep-fry the pork Photo: Ben Hansen

Steps 6 and 7: Stir-fry the vegetables

Transfer the oil to a heatproof container, wipe the wok with paper towels and return it to the heat. Add a tablespoon of oil and, when it's hot, add the onion and garlic. Stir-fry until just aromatic, then add the pineapple and capsicum.
Steps 6 and 7: Stir-fry the vegetables Photo: Ben Hansen

Steps 8 and 9: Add the sweet and sour sauce, and potato flour dissolved in water

Toss for another 20 seconds, then add the sauce, spring onion and tomato, followed by the slurry of potato flour and water.
Steps 8 and 9: Add the sweet and sour sauce, and potato flour dissolved in water Photo: Ben Hansen

Step 10: Stir in the pork

As soon as the sauce begins to bubble, stir in the pork, transfer the mixture to a large bowl and serve it with steamed or fried rice.
Step 10: Stir in the pork Photo: Ben Hansen

And serve...

Once you've made this version, I promise you'll never go back to a mediocre Chinese restaurant for sweet and sour pork again.

Sweet and sour pork recipe

Serves 4 | Preparation time: 20 mins | Cooking time: 15 minutes


  • 250 gm fresh pineapple (about ¼ small)
  • 1 small onion
  • 1 firm tomato
  • ½ red capsicum
  • ½ green capsicum
  • 1 spring onion
  • 2-3 long red chillies, seeded
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • Vegetable oil, for deep-frying
  • 75 gm potato flour, plus 1 tsp extra (½ cup)
  • 65 gm rice flour (½ cup)
  • Steamed or fried rice, to serve
Marinated pork
  • 1 scant tsp five-spice powder
  • 2 tsp light soy sauce
  • 2 tsp Shaoxing wine
  • 1 tsp ginger juice (squeezed from 2 tbsp finely grated ginger)
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 500 gm pork neck
Sweet and sour sauce
  • 185 ml chicken stock (¾ cup)
  • 125 ml tomato ketchup (½ cup)
  • 1 tbsp caster sugar, or to taste
  • 1 tbsp rice vinegar (white not black), or to taste
  • 2 tsp light soy
  • ½ tsp dark soy sauce
  • ½ tsp sesame oil


  • 1
    For marinated pork, combine five-spice, light soy, Shaoxing wine, ginger juice, egg and a pinch of salt in a bowl.
  • 2
    Cut pork into 3cm pieces, add to marinade and mix well. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate to marinate (15 minutes or overnight; if marinating overnight, mix in egg just before cooking).
  • 3
    For sweet and sour sauce, mix ingredients in a bowl, and season to taste with sugar and vinegar.
  • 4
    Cut pineapple into bite-sized pieces, cut onion and tomato into wedges, thinly slice capsicums, cut spring onion into batons, thinly slice chillies, finely chop garlic and set aside separately on a tray.
  • 5
    Heat oil in a wok to 185C. Combine flours in a bowl, add pork cubes and toss to coat, then deep-fry in batches until browned and crisp (2-3 minutes; be careful, hot oil will spit). Remove pork with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Repeat if desired for a crisper texture. Reserve oil in a heatproof container.
  • 6
    Wipe wok with paper towels, then heat 1 tbsp frying oil. When hot, add onion, chilli and garlic, and stir-fry until onion starts to colour (30 seconds).
  • 7
    Add capsicum and pineapple, and stir-fry until well combined (20 seconds).
  • 8
    Add sweet and sour sauce, bring to the boil, then add spring onion and tomato, and stir-fry until warmed through (30-40 seconds).
  • 9
    Meanwhile, combine extra potato flour with 1 tbsp cold water and stir into boiling sauce to thicken. Season to taste.
  • 10
    Return pork to wok to warm through (1-2 minutes), then serve with rice.