The evolution of recipes is as complex as any theory advanced by Charles Darwin, and to me, no less fascinating. Few among us can resist tampering with even the most treasured culinary traditions, and further changes adapt recipes to the ingredients at hand, or the inspiration of the moment.
So it is with one of my family’s favorite dishes. To make it I still pull out my soy-sauce-speckled Joyce Chen Cook Book, which falls open on its own to her recipe for Sweet and Sour Pork. All I use it for any more is to be sure of the proportions for the sauce itself – I’ve stopped referring even to the notes I’ve penciled in the margins.
The resulting dish probably bears little if any resemblance to anything now or ever served in China, but it brings back fond memories of Joyce and her little restaurant just opposite Alewife station in Cambridge, where we always stopped for dinner on our way home from a day in Boston. She would stop at the table to comment on the girls’ increasing skill with chopsticks, and sometimes give them some little treasure. Somewhere in the bottom of Julie’s jewelry box is still, I suspect, the treasured enamel panda pin that Joyce gave her after a trip to China.
With apologies to Joyce, here’s our much-evolved recipe:
Sweet and Sour Chicken
(liberally adapted from Joyce Chen’s recipe for Sweet and Sour Pork)
Mix well in a bowl:
2 cups (1 pound) chicken meat, white or dark, without skin, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 tablespoon dry sherry
1 tablespoon soy sauce
3 tablespoons corn starch
Separate pieces and fry in 1 cup oil (350°F.) until well done and crisp at the edges, 6-8 minutes. Spread pieces on paper towels to drain; keep warm. Combine:
2/3 cup sugar
¼ cup catsup
1/3 cup pineapple juice
½ cup cider vinegar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
Just prior to serving, heat sauce pan with 1 tablespoon oil. Lightly cook 2 cloves crushed garlic in oil and then discard. Add one sweet red pepper, cut into 1-inch squares and stir until pepper is lightly cooked, but still slightly crunchy. Set aside with chicken.
Add sugar/vinegar mixture to pan and cook over low heat until bubbling. Stir in 2 tablespoons cornstarch mixed with 1/3 cup water, stirring constantly until it is thickened and translucent. Add 1 cup drained pineapple chunks and stir until heated through. Add cooked chicken and peppers, stirring well to combine and reheat. Serve immediately with rice.