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Sweet and Sour in Italian and Other Cuisines

Updated on July 27, 2021
Classic Italian sweet and sour sauce - Salsa Agrodolce alla Parmigiana. Image:  © Comugnero Silvana -
Classic Italian sweet and sour sauce - Salsa Agrodolce alla Parmigiana. Image: © Comugnero Silvana -

"But it's not really Chinese food!" is the horrified reaction of non-Chinese friends when I include sweet and sour pork as part of our dinner order at Chinese restaurants. In fact, it is a classic Chinese dish with its high standing reflected in its Chinese name gu low yoke, meaning "venerable pork". Unfortunately, its reputation has been badly maligned in the West by poor quality, neon red gluey renditions.

Much maligned Chinese classic: Sweet & Sour Pork. Image: © bonchan|
Much maligned Chinese classic: Sweet & Sour Pork. Image: © bonchan|

Properly executed - and few do it well - sweet and sour pork is a marvel of flavour and textural balances: double deep-fried yet greaseless, crisp-battered pork swathed in a glidingly viscous sauce of perky acidity softened by hints of sweetness. Interestingly, prawns or fish similarly prepared are not accorded the 'venerable' status but simply called sweet and sour prawns or fish.

Stuffed Cabbage. Image: © Lilyana Vynogradova -
Stuffed Cabbage. Image: © Lilyana Vynogradova -

Sweet & Sour In European Cuisines

Whilst usually associated with Chinese cuisine, the sweet and sour combination also features in many European cuisines, from Italian to Polish, with a strong showing in Jewish cooking. The pervasiveness of sweet-and-sour flavours in Jewish cuisine stems from the practice of preparing dishes for serving cold on the Sabbath. In pre-refrigeration days, vinegar was added as a preservative, the acidity of which was countered by honey or sugar.

Here's a tiny sample of Jewish sweet & sour dishes:

  • Apio (Sephardic Sweet and Sour Celery): Celery stalks cooked in water, lemon juice, oil, sugar and salt. The dish is served at room temperature or chilled.
  • Holishkes (Polish Stuffed Cabbage): Stuffed cabbage symbolises abundance and is a traditional Ashkenazic Sukkoth and Simchas Torah dish. The sweet and sour tomato sauce includes brown sugar or honey and vinegar and sometimes, raisins are also added.
  • Klops (Eastern European Sweet and Sour Meatballs): Meatballs made with minced beef, onion, matza meal or bread crumbs, and egg. These are baked in tomato sauce that includes caramelised sugar and lemon juice.
  • Suz und sauer Fische (German sweet and sour fish): In this jellied fish dish, wine vinegar, brown sugar, raisins and cloves are added to the water in which the fish head, tail and bones are cooked to produce the jellied sauce.

Regional Italian Sweet Sour dishes

Venetian Sardele in saor (white vinegar) Image: © Comugnero Silvana -
Venetian Sardele in saor (white vinegar) Image: © Comugnero Silvana -
Caponata Siciliana Image: © al62 -
Caponata Siciliana Image: © al62 -
Cipolle in agrodolce - Antipasti Lombardia Image: © Comugnero Silvana -
Cipolle in agrodolce - Antipasti Lombardia Image: © Comugnero Silvana -

Agrodolce: Italian Sweet & Sour

Agrodolce (literally sour sweet) sauces have long been a part of Italian gastronomic tradition. This flavour combination featured in ancient Roman cooking, with honey as the sweetening agent but disappeared along with the Roman Empire. Re-introduced through Arab influences in medieval times, agrodolce has remained firmly entrenched in Italian cuisine with some modifications over the centuries.

Vinegar is the usual souring agent. Sugar has long since replaced honey, and spices such as cloves used more discreetly today than in medieval and Renaissance times. Pine nuts and sultanas are common additions. Candied peel or fruit also make an occasional appearance in agrodolce dishes, and with in game dishes, grated bitter chocolate is sometimes added as well.

Salsa agrodolce di uvette e pinoli (Agrodolce sauce with pine nuts and currants) harks back to antiquity. Cook about 2 tablespoons of sugar in a pan. When it starts to caramelise, add 5 tablespoons of vinegar. Stir well and add 2 tablespoons of stock and season with salt to taste. Finish it off with 1 tablespoon each of pine nuts and currants which have been macerated in vinegar.

It's a great dressing for fried fish such as sardines. For the Venetian speciality of Sardele in Saor ("saor" meaning in white vinegar), thinly sliced onions instead of sugar are friend until they are caramelised. Vinegar is then added to the pan, followed by pine nuts and currants. This dressing is poured over fried sardines. The dish must be left for at least 2 days in the refrigerator before eating to allow the flavours to properly meld. Great fish dish to prepare ahead!

The tomato-based salsa agrodolce alla parmigiana is a classic accompaniment for meat, particularly game and duck. To make this, fry chopped onions in butter and oil. When the onions turn golden brown, add some peeled tomatoes, salt and cookd for about 20 minutes. Blend 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar with 1 tablespoon of sugar and add to the tomato sauce. Finish the sauce with a finely chopped clove of garlic and finely chopped parsley.

Vegetables lend themselves particularly well to being done agrodolce. Sicilian specialities include caponata (sweet & sour eggplant) and zucca fritta all'agrodolce (fried pumpkin in a sweet and sour sauce which is spiced up with a touch of vanilla and cinnamon as well as some mint or basil leaves).

Aceto di vino Image: © Comugnero Silvana -
Aceto di vino Image: © Comugnero Silvana -

Recipe: Pork Ribs Inspired by La Mangiatoia

Many years ago, I had a fabulous pork dish at La Mangiatoia, a restaurant in the backstreets of the Tuscan hill-town of San Gimignano. What really struck me was the sauce which had a robust yet very clean acidity that set off the richness of pork so beautifully.

I experimented with re-creating the dish on my return to Australia and finally got to the taste I remembered after about 3 attempts. A key ingredient is excellent quality wine vinegar i.e. one which has been made by traditional method in which a quality wine is put in contact with natural acetifying bacteria and aged in oak barrels. Their flavours differ according the wine used as the base eg Barolo, Chianti, Dolcetto. They are so smooth that you can drink them, unlike industrial vinegars which would just about rip the back of your throat out.

(Serves 4 - 6)

1.5 kg belly pork ribs, rind removed
Olive oil for sautéing ribs
750 ml Italian red wine e.g. Chianti, Sangiovese
4 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly smashed
8 - 10 sage leaves
Juice and finely chopped zest of 1 lemon
4 - 6 tbsp quality Italian red wine vinegar
50 g sugar and 2 tbsp water for making caramel

100 ml lemon juice
6 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly smashed
2 sprigs rosemary
3 - 4 bay leaves
1 tsp salt

  • About 20 pepper mill twists of black pepperMix marinade ingredients in a large glass dish or bowl and add ribs. Turn the ribs around in the marinade to ensure they are well coated. Leave overnight in the refrigerator.
  • Next day, take the meat out of the refrigerator several hours before cooking to bring to room temperature.
  • Pre-heat the oven to 150°C. On the stove top, heat olive oil in a large, oven proof casserole over moderately high heat. Dry ribs with paper towels and fry them until brown on both sides, removing them to a plate as they are browned.
  • When all of the ribs are browned, spoon off excess oil from the casserole. Put the ribs and the juices that have exuded back into the casserole. Add wine, garlic, sage and the herbs and garlic from the marinade. Bring to a simmer on the stove top. Cover and put the casserole into the oven to cook for about an hour or until the ribs are tender.
  • Remove casserole from the oven. Transfer the ribs to a warm serving dish. Discard whole herbs and garlic cloves.
  • Keep the sauce at a simmer over low heat on the stove top. Prepare the caramel: place the sugar and water in a small saucepan over moderate heat. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Make sure the sugar is fully dissolved before the water comes to the boil. Cook until you have rich amber caramel.
  • As soon as the caramel reaches a rich amber colour, add a ladleful of the sauce from the casserole. Be careful - it will splutter quite violently. Stir to blend completely. Pour the caramel mixture into the casserole, along with the lemon zest and rind, and vinegar. Simmer for a few minutes.
  • Pour the sauce over the ribs and serve immediately.

Notes :
1. If you are preparing this dish several hours ahead of serving time, return the ribs to the casserole once the sauce is done. Cover the casserole and reheat over the stove top or in the oven before serving.

2. I also fill a little spray bottle with the vinegar for the table so that guests can add a little "spruzzata" of vinegar if they want more acidity.


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