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What is Sweet and Sour Sauce?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Sweet and sour sauce is a sauce which combines both sweet and sour flavors, creating a distinctively tangy mouthfeel. Many people associate this dish with Chinese cuisine, but in fact many cultures have a tradition of blending sweet and sour flavors in a variety of ways: cranberry sauce, for example, a New World food, is technically a form of sweet and sour sauce. There are a number of ways to prepare and use sweet and sour sauce, and it is widely used all over the world.

Sweetness and sourness are two of the primary and distinct tastes which can be detected by the tongue. People can also taste saltiness, bitterness, and a fifth taste known as “umami.” These five tastes combine in a wide variety of ways to create a huge library of flavors, from the bitter taste of coffee to the sweet taste of fresh fruits. Many cultures have a history of playing with contrasting tastes like sweet and sour, sweet and salty, or sweet and bitter in their cooking, using the interplay of flavors to enhance the flavor of their cuisines.

This sauce does indeed originate in China, with most evidence suggesting that it comes from Canton, the home of sweet and sour pork. Sweet and sour pork is, in fact, a common New Year's treat even today in this region of China, and it is likely that the sauce as well as the dish spread outwards from Canton. Hunan also lays a claim to the invention of sweet and sour sauce, and it is possible that it arose independently there, as the combination of sweet and sour is hardly rocket science to figure out.

In Chinese cooking, sweet and sour sauce is made with just two ingredients: sugar and vinegar. The sugar may be white or brown, with some cooks using molasses or other sweeteners like honey, and the vinegar may sometimes be replaced with rice wine. The distinctive red color which many Westerners associated with sweet and sour sauce is due to the addition of tomato ketchup, a Western invention.

In China, sweet and sour sauce can be used for dipping, and also as a cooking sauce. It may also be used to dress salads and other side dishes, depending on the region and the tastes of the cook. Outside of Asia, various regional takes on sweet and sour sauce are used in much the same way. For example, cooks in the American South may make ham with honey and orange juice, a combination of sweet and sour, and Italians are big fans of saba, a rich reduction of fresh grape juice which has both sweet and sour notes.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a DelightedCooking researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By Talentryto — On Mar 12, 2014

That is a great idea too, Heavanet. I'll have to give that a try next time I make fish basted with sweet and sour sauce.

By Heavanet — On Mar 11, 2014

Those are good sweet and sour sauce recipe ideas Talentryto. I also like to use it on salads with grilled salmon or tuna. The flavors of the fish, the greens, and the sauce go great together.

By Talentryto — On Mar 11, 2014

Though stir fry sweet and sour sauce recipes are the most common kinds, this type of sauce is very versatile with a variety of dishes. It's great as a basting for fish, and it is tasty on different types of pasta. Kids also like it as a dipping sauce for vegetables and other types of snacks.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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