Before you completely get bored of me saying ‘add vinegar, then sugar’, I think I’d better talk about it first. :))
Couple of years ago, when I had to go back to Manchester every week, a really nice friend put me up for the night, as return, (and if I wasn’t lazy), I would cook him dinner – that is where crispy beef from, it became one of his favorites. One day, he asked me what I put in every dish, I said, “this one, oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar and sugar, and that one, oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar and sugar…”, by the third dish, he could already recite “ oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar and sugar…” He laughed, probably thought I was joking, I laughed.. with a bit embarrassment. Well, it wasn’t my fault, I couldn’t find any other seasonings, so tried to use the mixture of vinegar and sugar to give the dishes some flavor. :)) (Actually, I was wrong, he has lots Chinese seasonings in the kitchen, I did not look for it enough.)
Sugar in Chinese cooking
The first time my friends learnt that there was sugar in most of Chinese recipes, they were very surprised — because it is difficult to tell only by the taste. The sweetness of sugar normally mixes into the sauce along with the other ingredients to bring out the flavor, (don’t be surprised, sometimes there is also a pinch of salt in cakes). But when sugar mixes with vinegar, the taste is different.
Well, the actual taste of the dish depends on how much of each you put in. For example, in the http://cookingsimplechinesefoodathome.blogspot.com/2011/04/5-guo-bao-rou-our-version-of-sweet-and.html> crispy beef dish , I put quite a lot of vinegar and sugar to get the very ‘obvious’ mixed sweet and sour taste. In some Chinese salads, however, although I put same amount of vinegar and sugar, the sweet taste of sugar and sourness from vinegar do not mix into a single ‘sweet and sour’ taste and you can taste sweetness and sourness separately. This is because of the juice coming from the vegetables, and the fact that it is a cold dish, — am I talking clearly? Also, you probably already notice, in some stir-fry dishes, only a little vinegar and sugar is needed —it is hard to tell any ‘sweetness and sourish’ at all, but the taste of the dish is enriched. Don’t even mention by putting more sugar or more vinegar, the taste of the dish will also be changed. — I like to think it is the magic of ‘vinegar and sugar’. It sounds funny, but it is true.
The Chinese vinegar
The vinegar I normally use is rice vinegar, which I already mentioned in ‘At the beginning’, and sugar is white sugar (for some time, I didn’t like the idea of using normal sugar, so I used fruit sugar instead, it works the same — I know in the bakery, it is different.) I have mentioned a few time about ‘old vinegar’, I have been asked by friends how it is called on the label —- lately I found it in Tesco. In Northeast dishes, it normally goes with spinach salad, or stir-fried cabbage, or as dip for dumplings. It doesn’t have to be combined with sugar, if you want to add sugar, only a little bit is enough. It cannot replace rice vinegar in normal dishes, otherwise the taste would be strange.
— don’t know if it is enough explanation, but you can try different proportions of sugar and vinegar in the mix, you will know what I mean. :)