Sweet and sour dishes, like sweet and sour shrimp, blend some of the best flavors in Chinese cuisine. While you’re far more likely to find sweet and sour dishes in Chinese American fare, these recipes do rely on classic Chinese ingredients and Chinese cooking methods. Sweet and sour shrimp pairs well with some easy and delicious sides and can be adjusted to fit your favorite flavor and heat levels.
When you’re ready to begin making Chinese dishes at home and personalizing them to fit your favorite tastes, Fly By Jing is here to help. We want to make it as easy and accessible as possible to experiment with new flavors and embrace classic spices, from chili crisp to Zhong sauce, so you can share with friends and family and celebrate delicious tastes in your own kitchen.
What Is Sweet and Sour Shrimp?
One of the reasons sweet and sour dishes are so enticing is because they’re so versatile. You can make sweet and sour shrimp, chicken, pork, or even fish fillet. You can also adjust the balance of traditional flavors to fit your favorite style or experiment with different methods of cooking.
While sweet and sour recipes are largely a Chinese American dish, one you’ll find at many Chinese food take-out restaurants, many regions of China and across the continent of Asia have their own approaches to sweet and sour dishes.
The constant is that these dishes balance sweet flavors and sour flavors, as the name would indicate, through the use of fruits and sugars and rice vinegar. Many Chinese food dishes also use these ingredients, but you’ll find that American sweet and sour recipes will also include ingredients like ketchup for a hint of barbeque flavoring.
Because you can also adjust the vegetables you use to match the main meats and the sides, this is an excellent dish for both trying out new ingredients and learning how to cook Chinese food. It’s also a guaranteed hit at any family celebration or dinner party with friends.
History of Sweet and Sour Shrimp
The practice of balancing sweet and sour flavors dates back to the beginning of Chinese cooking and the use of ingredients like soy sauce, chili crisp, and sesame. But the history of sweet and sour shrimp and other sweet and sour dishes as we know them today is much more recent. It can be traced to the late 1800s and the rise of Chinese immigration into the western United States.
While Chinese immigrants were looking to recreate their favorite flavors from home, the draw of classic Chinese food was far-reaching, and restaurants featuring those enticing dishes became ubiquitous. So did the need for faster cooking methods and more American-based flavor profiles, which led to the use of ingredients that were more tomato and white vinegar-based. For sweet and sour dishes, that also meant the quick-to-prepare and inexpensive canned pineapple that is still often used in the dish today.
Now, sweet and sour sauce is one of the most popular sauces across America and, indeed, the world. It’s offered as a condiment with both Chinese and non-Chinese foods, alike, available at fast-food restaurants, local Chinese food places, and more. It has even returned to Asia, where more traditional ingredients are used to create those bold flavor combinations with unique regional approaches.
Variations of Chinese food dishes can be traced to different parts of China, but it was traditionally used more as a dipping sauce than cooked with the food, as it is in western cooking. Some even trace the original sauce to the region of Henan, but like so many dishes and flavor profiles in Chinese cuisine, sweet and sour shrimp is an evolving recipe that takes influence from its location, ingredients, travel, and culture.
Recipe for Sweet and Sour Shrimp
There are so many delicious sweet and sour dishes, from soups to sides, and sweet and sour shrimp is one of our favorites. Here’s what you’ll want to know about making sweet and sour shrimp in your own kitchen with your own favorite ingredients.
For the Shrimp:
Shrimp: The shrimp is at the center of this delicious dish, so take the time to pick out the right shrimp. Shrimp is measured count per pound, and you’ll want to go with a slightly larger shrimp, so aim for a 16/18 – 16/20 count per pound. This will prevent them from overheating too quickly in the pot and give you a juicy bite of shrimp.
If you decide to go with a larger shrimp, consider cutting them in half to ensure even cooking. For smaller shrimp, pay close attention to the cooking time. Once the shrimp becomes rubbery, there’s no going back.
Vegetable Oil: Many Chinese food dishes require a neutral oil like canola oil or peanut oil because it has a higher flash point and is great for stir-frying.
Sesame Oil: Sesame oil is one of those pantry staples that adds a hint of nuttiness to any dish and enhances existing flavors.
Vegetables: You can swap your favorite vegetables into this dish, but traditionally, sweet and sour shrimp includes red peppers, zucchinis, and onions. Dice the peppers and slice the zucchini.
Garlic and Ginger: Garlic and ginger show up in many great Chinese food dishes, and it’s not hard to see why. When stir-fried, they’ll add hints of sweet and savory flavor that you’re sure to enjoy.
Pineapple Chunks: Pineapple is one of the key ingredients in this dish. You’ll want to use about a cup of pineapple, but make sure it’s high-quality. This is where much of the sweetness will come from.
For the Sauce:
Honey: Honey is often used to sweeten a dish if you don’t want to use sugar. For a more barbeque-based flavor, brown sugar is a good option.
Rice Vinegar: Rice vinegar has a slight sweetness to it and is used in many Chinese food dishes. Many American sweet and sour recipes call for white vinegar, instead, so experiment with ingredients to see which flavors you prefer.
Soy Sauce: Soy sauce provides a lot of balance to the sweetness of your dish, thanks to its umami and savory flavors.
Tomato Paste: Tomato paste helps to give the sweet and sour shrimp that iconic flavor profile. Most American versions of this dish will call for some tomato base, like a tomato paste or ketchup. Ketchup does include more sugar, so adjust your recipe accordingly.
Pineapple Juice: In addition to the pineapple chunks, a splash of pineapple juice will help to give your dish that sweetness that balances so well with the seafood and umami flavors.
Cornstarch: Cornstarch is a thickening agent. A little bit will help to give your sauce that perfect viscosity to coat your shrimp.
Once you have all the ingredients, the recipe for sweet and sour shrimp is pretty easy to cook up—and your friends and family are sure to enjoy!
Step One: Whisk together all of your sauce ingredients but the cornstarch and set aside.
Step Two: Make your cornstarch flurry with water.
Step Three: Dry the shrimp and season with salt and pepper. Begin heating your oil in the wok.
Step Four: Cook shrimp one layer at a time and let sit for about a minute. Then cook for another 30 seconds. Remove shrimp.
Step Five: Cook vegetables in more oil for about two minutes. Add garlic and ginger, then add pineapple.
Step Six: Pour in the sweet and sour sauce and simmer for about two minutes.
Step Seven: Thicken with cornstarch mixture.
Step Eight: Add shrimp, cook to combine and warm, ~ 2 minutes.
Step Nine: Top with sesame seeds and green onions and serve with your favorite rice or side.
It’s hard not to fall in love with sweet and sour dishes like sweet and sour shrimp. They’re chock full of complementing flavors and bold bites of pineapple, peppers, and zucchini. Making sweet and sour shrimp at home is smooth and easy, and you can substitute all of your favorite ingredients to find the flavors and textures that everyone enjoys.
And when you’re ready to take your Chinese home cooking to the next level, Fly By Jing is here to help. In addition to a wide range of all your favorite Chinese food recipes, from Mapo Tofu to dan dan noodles, we also carry the ingredients you need to achieve spicy, umami, and sweet flavors right in your kitchen.
Chinese inspired cooking is both a personal and historical experience, and we want to make it as fun and exciting as possible to begin making the journey yourself—sweet and sour shrimp is a great place to start!