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A sweet and sour stir fry is a way to prepare vegetables, and often meat, in a hot pan or wok. The sweet and sour flavor can be achieved in a number of ways, although the most basic version is a combination of vinegar, soy sauce and sugar. The meats and vegetables are fried until they are done, after which the sweet and sour sauce is added close to the end of cooking so it does not burn; the meat sometimes is marinated before being fried. A tradition that was made popular in Chinese-style restaurants is to color the sauce with some tomato sauce or ketchup to give it a bright red-orange hue. Although the dish originated in China, it has gained popularity in many countries around the world and has been adapted to non-Asian cuisines.
The first step in making a sweet and sour stir fry is to prepare all the vegetables and meats. Ingredients such as broccoli, onions, green beans, peppers, peas and mushrooms are all commonly found in a stir fry. More typically Asian-style ingredients that can be used include baby corn, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts and shredded Chinese cabbage. Cooking a stir fry is a fairly fast process, so the vegetables should all be cut beforehand so they are ready to be added to the pan as needed. Having each of the vegetables cut into pieces of a similar size will help to make sure everything cooks at the same rate.
The meat used is usually chicken, pork or beef. The texture of the dish goes well with boneless cuts that are sliced into bite-size pieces matching the size of the vegetables. Some recipes call for the meat to be marinated in soy sauce and ginger before being cooked, while others have it resting in corn starch slurry so the sweet and sour stir fry sauce will stick to the surface and brown easier.
The actual sweet and sour stir fry sauce can be made of many ingredients. Vinegar and sugar can form a basic sweet and sour taste. The sugar can be replaced with diced fruits such as mango or pineapple. Other sweet flavors for the sauce include dry sherry, fruit preserves or fruit juice. The sour element is almost always vinegar or sour fruit juices, although hoisin sauce can be used for a more subtle taste.
The cooking process for a sweet and sour stir fry starts by quickly cooking the meat in a hot pan and removing it once it is done. The vegetables are then added and cooked. The sweet and sour sauce is poured in and allowed to cook for a moment before the meat is reintroduced to the pan and coated with the sauce. Corn starch slurry is frequently added to thicken the sauce, help the meat brown and make the whole dish shimmer with a sugary glaze. The finished sweet and sour stir fry can be served on its own or with white rice.
@Pippinwhite -- I think you're right about every Chinese place having different sweet and sour sauce recipes. It obviously doesn't come in a can or a jar, for sure.
I love sweet and sour chicken, too, and also sweet and sour pork. I like the stir fry because I think it brings out the flavors so well.
I like a lot of veggies in my stir fry -- it helps extend the meal and means I don't need as much rice. I love rice, but I don't eat it much, and if sweet and sour sauce is involved, I can already count way too many carbs, so it's nice when the rice isn't as crucial to the meal. Adding some Siracha sauce to the stir fry makes it sweet and spicy, which is also really good.
I love sweet and sour chicken, whether it's deep fried, or stir fried. A local Chinese place does both and both are really good.
I also like sweet and sour stir fried with pineapple chunks. That just gives the dish such a good flavor. I really like grilled pineapple anyway, and I love it on a chicken sandwich or on pizza. Or on a hamburger, for that matter.
Sweet and sour sauce is readily available in the grocery store, so it's easy to find for stir-frying or dipping purposes. I also like to dip wontons into sweet and sour sauce. Every place has a slightly different sauce recipe, so it's always interesting to find out what a particular restaurant thinks is a good sweet and sour sauce recipe.