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Sweet and sour cabbage is a food dish in which cabbage is paired with ingredients that produce a final dish with sharp sour notes tempered by a sweet flavor. The exact balance of the sweet and sour is different depending on the tastes of the cook and the type of cuisine from which the recipe originated. In general, the most classic ingredients used to create sweet and sour cabbage are vinegar and sugar, although other items — such as honey, soy sauce or brown sugar — also can be used. The cabbage is sometimes complemented with aromatics such as onions and carrots, and it can have introduced savory elements such as ham hocks or bacon. The resulting sweet and sour cabbage can be served as an appetizer, mixed with other ingredients to make sweet and sour soup, or even canned to make a type of sweet and sour cabbage preserves.
The most basic recipe for sweet and sour cabbage starts with the cabbage being chopped into small, manageable pieces. The cabbage will wilt and reduce in volume as it cooks, so a good amount is used at the start of the recipe. In a hot pan, the cabbage is briefly fried until it wilts and takes on some color. Vinegar and sugar are added to the pan and everything is allowed to cook, covered, until the flavors have developed and the cabbage has become very tender. The result of this basic method is a robust dish in which the sweet and sour elements are unmitigated and at the forefront of the overall taste.
More commonly, sweet and sour cabbage uses other ingredients to help create a more complex, and sometimes more subtle, taste. Onions can be added at the start of cooking and sauteed until translucent. Garlic, ginger or apples also can be used to help add flavor. A more distinctive taste can be achieved with the addition of fish sauce, star anise or white wine.
Not all sweet and sour cabbage recipes include a lot of spices, but some of the more common ones are caraway seeds, sesame seeds, five-spice powder, nutmeg and cloves. Especially in some Eastern European recipes, bacon or ham hocks can be added to give a savory undertone to the cabbage. The spices sometimes are added at the beginning, while other times they are added at the end of cooking and allowed to heat through with the warm cabbage.
Vinegar generally is used to create the sour taste in the cabbage, although tamarind is sometimes seen. The sweet ingredient can be sugar, but it also can be brown sugar, honey or even applesauce for a more subtle sweetness. Even though the cabbage will release water as it cooks, some recipes call for additional water to be added to help the flavors mingle and take the sharp edge off the vinegar.
The final sweet and sour cabbage can be served as a side dish or as a main course for a meal. It also can be added to a stir fry and cooked quickly or placed into a pan and baked slowly with a roast or casserole. One popular recipe adds tomatoes, carrots and lemon juice to the cabbage to make a sweet and sour soup.