The classic sauce known as “Sweet and Sour” is not a tradition of Chinese cuisine. What became known as Chinese-American food started in the late 1800s, when Chinese laborers formed communities to support each other, bringing flavors from home to offer comfort to the longing of familiarity left behind. Other laborers began experiencing the Chinese cuisine because the common bond of hard work broke down the racial barriers that divided. As the knowledge spread of the rich and exotic flavors happening in these “Chinatowns,” rich Americans got caught up with these new flavors, and Chinese restaurateurs saw the opportunity to make some money.
The cooks began to surrender some of their time-consuming cooking techniques and expensive, hard-to-find spices. Instead, they looked for ways to flavor food in quick, powerful bursts. Knowing that Americans enjoyed the sweetened acidity of tomato-based sauces like ketchup, the chefs began to coat their meats in a stronger version of the sweet and sour sauces served in China. (Hello, MSG!) They replaced traditional, delicately-flavored rice vinegar with more pungent, but readily-available, white vinegar. These chefs had unlocked a shortcut to the complex flavor balance of Chinese cooking, and quickly reaped the profits.
The History of Sweet and Sour Sauce
This is a gluten-free recipe that pays attention to the type of sweetener being used. We are using tamari, apple-cider vinegar with “the mother,” and tomato paste to add savory flavor to the tofu and sauce. Sauteing the vegetables brings out the complexity, balancing the sour and sweetness, while adding a nice texture.
Recipe for two:
1 cup rice, cooked according to instructions
apple cider vinegar (ACV)
10 oz firm tofu, pressed to squeeze out liquid and cut in 1/2 to 1 inch cubs
gluten-free, all-purpose flower
1 carrot or 5 baby carrots, 1/4 inch diagonal slices
1 green bell pepper, divided
1 red bell pepper, divided
1 yellow onion, divided and chopped
2 cloves of garlic, divided and chopped
coconut sugar (lower glycemic index), or other brown sugar
salt and pepper
toasted sesame oil for flavor or whole toasted sesame seeds*
avocado oil for cooking*
Press your tofu 30 minutes or more before you start prepping and cooking. After tofu has been pressed, start cooking your 1 cup of rice, according to instructions. Take your cubed tofu that you have pressed, and in a medium sized bowl, add 2 Tbs tamari and 1 Tbs ACV, basting every few minutes while prepping your vegetables. After you’ve divided and chopped your onion, your garlic, and sliced your carrot(s), chop half of your bell peppers and set aside for the fried rice. The other half of your peppers, cut in 1/2 to 1 inch slices for the tofu stir-fry. After tofu has marinated a good 10 minutes or so, drain, place tofu in a small to medium glass bowl that has a lid, add 2 Tbs of gluten-free flour, close lid and shake to coat tofu cubes. Set aside. In a deep pot over medium heat, warm your cooking oil. Add your tofu stir-fry vegetables, (onion, red and green bell pepper, carrot) 1/4 Tsp salt and pepper, and cook for 3 minutes, until they start to get a golden color. Remove from heat. In a deep large pan over medium heat, warm your cooking oil and add your fried rice vegetables (onion, red and green bell pepper). Cook for 3 to 4 minutes to get a nice golden color. Turn heat down to medium-low, add cooked rice, and 1 Tbs of tamari. Stir to incorporate and fry the rice, about 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from heat.
In a small pan, add 4 Tbs coconut or other brown sugar, 1/2 Tbs maple syrup, 2 Tbs tomato paste, 1 Tbs ACV, 1/2 Tbs tamari, 2 Tbs gluten-free flour, 1 chopped garlic clove, and 6 Tbs of water. Heat pan over medium heat until sauce is mixed and starts to bubble. Turn heat down to low to a simmer, adding 1 Tbs of water at a time to keep a thick sauce consistency. Remove from heat. Return the tofu-stir fry to medium heat and add 1 chopped garlic clove, cooking for 1 minute. Add floured tofu cubes and cook, stirring every minute or so until tofu is starting to crip and get a golden-brown color. If the tofu is sticking to pan, that’s okay, keep stirring with the vegetables. Add a Tsp to 1 Tbs of oil if having difficulty with sticking. After about 2 or 3 minutes, add the Sweet and Sour Sauce and stir to incorporate. Remove from heat, add 1/2 Tbs of sesame oil and stir to incorporate. Alternatively, you could sprinkle toasted sesame seeds on top.
The stickiness of this dish makes it easy to eat with chopsticks. We didn’t have any, so a fork was implemented to shove large, savory bitefulls into mouth. My husband was very impressed with the flavor and texture of this dish. (I call that a win!) I loved using the whole amount of vegetables in this dish, not wasting anything. And because I opted to used all of it, I didn’t add any additional veggies to the rice or stir-fry. But feel free to experiment with some of your faves! I could see incorporating broccoli into the stir-fry, or adding peas and carrots to the fried rice. Think of this recipe as a launching point to doing your own creativity. Be bold and adventurous with your tools! Have fun with it!
Enjoy your art and may you live well!