I, for one, have never been an enemy of Chinese fast food joints. There's something endearing about those crinkled and trapezoidal cuts of carrot, those deep-fried strips of wonton wrappers, the shrimp with lobster sauce (the sauce, of course, being entirely bereft of lobster). Also, I like most anything in General Tso's sauce.
I am even fond of sweet and sour pork, which gets its sweetness from sugar and pineapple juice, its sourness from ketchup and rice vinegar. I don't know what I'm trying to get at here, maybe just that I wouldn't want to be the sort of eater who only likes "authentic" Chinese food.
But if what we're aiming for is more over less authenticity, then we should talk about Chinkaing Vinegar, one of the most common types of Chinese vinegar. I think of Chinkiang vinegar as the Chinese equivalent of balsamic: it is dark and inky, and its sweetness is built into its sourness.
Made from black glutinous rice, Chinkaing Vinegar is the type of vinegar the Chinese most often use for their versions of sweet and sour pork. No pineapple juice, no ketchup comes anywhere near the wok. Instead, there is only the mellow yet slightly bitter taste of Chinkaing Vinegar paired with sugar and soy sauce. Dishes of sweet and sour pork made with Chinkiang vinegar are, in my opinion, simpler, subtler, and better-tasting than their American counterparts.
See for yourself. This week I'm offering two very different versions of sweet and sour pork. Spare ribs, deep-fried so they are golden brown and a little crisp, are simmered in soy sauce and sugar. The mixture reduces into a syrupy glaze. At the last moment, spoonfuls of Chinkiang Vinegar go into the pot, imparting a subtle degree of sourness.
Take two: sweet and sour stir-fried pork. It differs from its American equivalent in two ways. First, the chunks of pork are not battered in a thick flour mixture. Slivers of pork are coated, but only very thinly, in egg and cornstarch, then deep-fried lightly(or "passed through the oil") so that the meat is just cooked through. Then the meat is stir-fried with ginger and green onion. A cornstarch slurry containing vinegar, soy sauce, and sugar is swirled in. It's soothing and light, and not too sweet, not too sour.