Clinging to ghosts…sad, regretful, and looking to bring back the past…
Oh dear, do I sound like I’m describing myself?
Fortunately, no; instead I was remembering an old chef I once knew, and from whom, for a short while, I learned some of the finest techniques of Cantonese cooking when I was eleven.
Being a new immigrant to England, this chef had a hard time adjusting to his adopted land. As he was not able to speak any English, he hardly ventured out of the restaurant, or his home. His world consisted of work, sleep, meals and occasional chitchat with fellow chefs, and little else.
Though trained as a Cantonese chef and working in a Cantonese restaurant, he was called upon to make tremendous adjustments and “adaptations” to dishes he knew so well. As anyone who’s traveled to the west knows (and remember, this was the 1960s), “Cantonese” is never really Cantonese over there. All Cantonese food had been localized to suit the western palate; outside of China, there was no such thing as “authentic” Cantonese – something my chef friend quickly came to learn. And it made his woes worse.
Stuck in an alien society and a hard, unrelenting work cycle, he spent a lot of time lamenting his decision to leave home. When it became especially bad, he would cook some ethnic Cantonese dishes for himself, to take the edge off his homesickness. As I spent a chunk of my childhood hanging around the restaurant kitchen, I inevitably became his listening ear – and beneficiary of his “comfort” cooking. I also learned some recipes from him, and one of these was Sweet and Sour Pork.
Unlike the ones we’re familiar with, this recipe uses no tomato sauce at all, but instead, preserved plum sauce. Apparently, tomato sauce was introduced as a substitute by chefs in America and Britain, to an audience more familiar with the flavors of the tomato than the Chinese plum.
Also from him, I learned a version of Sweet and Sour Pork, authentic enough, and mean enough to actually help me through my college days! I would teach cooking in private homes to earn extra pocket money, and a very popular mainstay of my repertoire was western-style Sweet and Sour Pork which I adapted from his teachings.
Sadly, I never knew what became of my friend the chef…I never saw him again after I left the restaurant kitchen.
Original Sweet & Sour Pork
Pork loin with some fat 200 g, cut into 2.5cm squares
Soy sauce 1 tsp
Oyster sauce ½ tbsp
Egg yolk ½
Corn flour ½ cup + 1 tbsp
Red chilli 1, sliced thickly
Green chilli 2, sliced thickly
Preserved plum sauce ¼ cup
Hawthorn (山楂) 20 g, mashed
Salt ¼ tsp
1. Season the pork with soy sauce, oyster sauce, egg and 1 tbsp. of corn flour for at least 30 minutes. Add 1 cup of corn flour gradually, until the pork is well coated and has a crumbly texture.
2. Deep-fry pork until slightly golden. Remove and drain the oil completely.
3. Once the pork has cooled sufficiently, deep-fry the pork again until it is golden brown. This step ensures the pork stays crispy. Remove pork and drain completely.
4. Mix the ingredients for the sauce thoroughly.
5. Heat the wok and quick-stir-fry chillies for 1 minute.
6. Pour the mixture and stir thoroughly. Add pork and fry for another 30 seconds, or until the sauce coats the pork and chillies thoroughly. There shouldn’t be any sauce left at the bottom of the wok.
7. Remove and serve immediately.
Note: Hawthorn gives a slightly sourish taste and a reddish tinge to the dish.
A hallmark of a good sweet and sour dish is a strong contrast of sweetness from the plum sauce, and sourness from hawthorn.