I am going to say up front that I am not 100% sure this is a thing worth the trouble. Wait, let’s go back a little.
Nearly three years ago my mom told me that she saw a TV show wherein Ruth Reichl, ex-NYT-food-reviewer and writer extraordinaire, makes sweet and sour pork with the exquisitely exotic-sounding osmanthus flower. My mom was captivated, because what fool wouldn’t be? The thing is, the recipe is otherwise unremarkable. Or rather: remarkably bland-sounding; it consists of nothing more than sliced pork, black fungus (which tastes like is sounds) and a tangy-sweet syrup. The longer I mused on it the less appetizing it sounded.
Except for the single star of the show, osmanthus.
I let it percolate in my brain for a few years, until a few months ago when I was in Seattle and wondered past a little Chinatown tea shop that sold bulk osmanthus, and then it all came drifting into place. The smell is what got me: it smells like apricots. Like fruity, warm, orange-yellow light, summery and evanescent.
Instead of Reichl’s recipe, I added it to my solid many-years-tested sweet and sour recipe. Instead of making a syrup, I steeped it straight into the pineapple juice I use as the primary liquid.
I love my sweet and sour, but Mike the Viking does not and therefore I rarely cook it. He claims it is all vinegar, I claim he is a buttface. We are at a standstill.
But the addition of osmanthus? A fleeting, minuscule whiff of it survives cooking. It is lost amongst the strong flavors, and though I still won’t make the recipe from Reichl’s TV show, I understand now why there are essentially no other ingredients involved. Meanwhile, my standard sweet-and-sour recipe remains a paragon of whitey-Chinese, and I implore you to try it. It is, admittedly, very tangy and not very sweet, but as it should be. If it is a little too sharp for you, add a little more sugar and ketchup to balance it out, but as I make it, it is refreshing, nutritious and light, not the sugary loogie you get from cheap Chinese take-out¹.
Don’t skip the tomatoes stirred in at the end, either. It is one of my favorite parts of the recipe, the way they remain intact and uncooked, but just warmed through. The usual caveats apply to the rest of the ingredients: chicken breast will be dry and sad, but whatever, I’m not the boss of you. I prefer chicken over pork, but even tofu is good (though I vote for the fried stuff). Any vegetable works, but I have never beat the combination of green bell pepper, onions and carrots. It is what it is, and for me, it is perfect.
Whitey Sweet and Sour
in the scheme of things it really isn’t that whitey of a recipe. i mean, it isn’t neon pink and made almost entirely from high fructose corn syrup, but it is made from pineapple juice and ketchup. for the pineapple juice, i usually buy a large can of pineapple chunks and use the juice from the whole can, but only about half of the actual pineapple pieces. and then i eat the rest of the can of pineapple while i am cooking, but that is a side story. if you don’t want actual pineapple pieces in your food, buy a can of pineapple juice, because the recipe still needs that tangy fruity flavor. lastly, osmanthus can be found online and at Chinese teashops, if you are lucky enough to live near one. Reichl advises using chamomile if you can’t get osmanthus, which is an interesting suggestion, but part of me just wants to tell you to use some apricot nectar instead of pineapple juice. TOO MANY IDEAS. i will shut up now.
2 Lbs. cubed boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 green bell pepper, cut into bite-sized pieces
1/2 onion, sliced into 1/4-inch slices
1 carrot, sliced thin, diagonal if you’re fancy
1 tomato cubed
1/2 cup pineapple chunks
1 scant cup pineapple juice **see note
2 – 3 heaping Tablespoons of osmanthus flowers
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup ketchup
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons brown sugar or more to taste
1 Tablespoon finely diced fresh ginger
2 Tablespoons soy sauce
2 Tablespoons corn starch
rice for serving
**Note: if you use a can of pineapple chunks for the juice, it will not produce a full cup. It will be a little shy of a cup. That is okay, keep going as planned.
- Heat the pineapple juice to a simmer (microwave is easiest, unless you’re against mutant pineapple juice, in which case on the stovetop in a small saucepan is the way to go) and steep the osmanthus flowers in it until the pineapple juice has cooled, about 10 minutes. Squeeze the remaining juice from the filter/teabag and discard the flowers. TEABAG! Haha!
- In a medium saucepan, over high heat briefly sauté the chicken pieces until they are browned on a few sides, but still have visible pink flesh. This will take 3-5 minutes. Add the green pepper, onion and carrot, and lower the heat to medium and allow it all to cook together for an additional 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- In a small bowl, mix the soy sauce and cornstarch together and set it aside.
- In the pot with the chicken and vegetables, add the remaining ingredients of the sauce: osmanthus pineapple juice, vinegar, ketchup, salt, brown sugar, and ginger. Let everything bubble over medium heat until it is as cooked as you like. I prefer my veggies pretty crisp, which means they are done cooking in 3 or 4 minutes. If you like yours soft, let them continue to cook a few minutes longer. When you’re happy with it, add the soy sauce and corn starch mixture, stirring rapidly as you pour to incorporate. Let it bubble and brap until thickened, about 2 minutes.
- Turn off the heat, add the diced tomato and pineapple pieces and stir to combine. Eat it.
¹ I have a friend that called cheap Chinese sweet and sour “neon abortion”. This turn of phrase has stuck with me over the years, though I cannot now remember who said it. I now pass it along to you, friend. Enjoy.