Chinese food isn't exactly a recent addition to the Australian culinary scene. After all, Australia's first Chinese restaurant opened in Melbourne all the way back in 1854. One of the most prominent and popular items on the menu at your local Chinese eatery is of the sweet and sour variety. But why is this flavour combination so popular in Chinese cooking?
The science behind this tasty combo is quite involved. Put simply, humans have the ability to differentiate between five basic tastes—sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami. The combination of sweet and sour flavour profiles on your taste receptors creates a contradiction that many people find appealing. And the Chinese have been combining these flavours for generations, although many variations of sweet and sour dishes were refined in other countries.
The origins of sweet and sour sauce have been linked to the Chinese province of Henan, but this was a mixture of vinegar and sugar that was used as a condiment for dipping, as opposed to a cooking sauce. The sweet and sour dishes on the menu at many local Chinese takeaways owe their history to Chinese immigrants in the US. In the early 1900s, those who migrated to the US and opened Chinese restaurants began to amend their dishes to better suit the local palate, by adding the sweet acidity of tomato sauce to the sauce. This is still a common practice, although the tomato sauce itself might be replaced with a tomato base, as opposed to processed tomato sauce.
Mainstream Sweet and Sour
As the sauce was refined to suit Western tastes, it became more of a cooking sauce and less of a condiment, although sweet and sour dipping sauce is still common in non-Chinese cooking. Many mainstream restaurants offer sweet and sour dipping sauces on their menus, for example.
Information for Vegans
The nature of the sweetness of Chinese sweet and sour sauce is something that vegans should query before ordering. Although many sweet and sour sauces use plain sugar, some use honey. So while a dish of sweet and sour vegetables or sweet and sour tofu might be vegetarian, it won't necessarily be vegan. In short, vegans should ask how the restaurant sweetens its sweet and sour sauce.
Although the sweet and sour sauce on the menu at your local Chinese takeaway has a rich history, perhaps all you really need to know is that it's delicious. Learn more about your options by contacting local Chinese food takeaway restaurants.