Shanghai Style Sweet & Sour Sauce

updated Feb 11, 2021
Shanghai Style Sweet & Sour Sauce

This sweet and sour sauce is the one I grew up with in Shanghai. It's made with black vinegar, rock sugar, and generally served atop tender pork riblets.

Serves6 to 8

Makes1 cup

Prep5 minutes

Cook30 minutes

Jump to Recipe
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sweet and sour ribs sit on a plate on a wooden table outside
Credit: Jenny Dorsey

Sweet and sour sauce is a term used for a wide range of sauces across many cultures, and can include everything from a sticky barbecue sauce made with apple cider vinegar to thick sauces made with pineapple. “Chinese sweet and sour sauce” encompasses an equally broad range of sauces, but a quick Google search offers little justice to the breadth of regional variation, and all the different ways it can be utilized.

The bright red iterations of Chinese sweet and sour sauce, typically made with ketchup, are often given the most attention. This sauce is delightful in its own right, but it’s worlds apart from the one I grew up with in Shanghai, which is dark and glossy from black vinegar, rock sugar, and cornstarch. It’s generally made to accompany pork ribs, and my mom specifically used tender little riblets to earn its name 糖醋小排 (sweet & sour little pork ribs). These were a quintessential centerpiece of my family’s dinner table when something “celebratory” had happened (as a child, this was usually a birthday or holiday; as an adult, when I was able to take time off school or work to visit). 

Credit: Jenny Dorsey

Even though my family generally uses this sauce for special occasions, it’s also extremely versatile and a deserved staple in any household. From grilled sardines and thin strips of beef stir-fry, to broiled octopus and roasted chicken thighs, this sauce can be used for so many other preparations beyond just pork ribs. 

To help educate people on the variety of Chinese sweet and sour sauces, I included this Shanghai-style sauce as an ingredient in my nonprofit’s dinner and exhibition series Asian in America. It is a key part of the series’ signature dish, Model Minority. The sauce is drizzled on top of golden veal sweetbreads and a rice gel sheet made with tiny shrimp and garlic chives, providing a layered commentary about the model minority myth and the ongoing fight of Asian Americans to carve an identity for themselves outside the gaze of white America.

Shanghai Style Sweet & Sour Sauce

This sweet and sour sauce is the one I grew up with in Shanghai. It's made with black vinegar, rock sugar, and generally served atop tender pork riblets.

Prep time 5 minutes

Cook time 30 minutes

Makes 1 cup

Serves 6 to 8

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 9

    medium scallions

  • 8 cloves

    garlic

  • 1

    (2-inch) piece fresh ginger

  • 1/4 cup

    chopped fresh cilantro

  • 2 tablespoons

    neutral oil, such as vegetable or canola

  • 2 tablespoons

    Shaoxing wine

  • 3/4 cup

    soy sauce

  • 3/4 cup

    black vinegar

  • 3 tablespoons

    granulated sugar, or 50 grams rock sugar

  • 1/4 cup

    cold water

  • 1 tablespoon

    cornstarch

  • 2 teaspoons

    toasted sesame oil

Instructions

  1. Trim and chop 9 medium scallions. Thinly slice 8 garlic cloves. Peel and thinly slice 1 (2-inch) piece fresh ginger. Coarsely chop until you have 1/4 cup chopped cilantro.

  2. Heat 2 tablespoons neutral oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat until shimmering. Add the scallions, garlic, and ginger, and sauté until very fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine and reduce for a few seconds. Add 3/4 cup soy sauce and 3/4 cup black vinegar, and bring the mixture to a light simmer.

  3. Add 3 tablespoons granulated sugar or 50 grams rock sugar, stir until melted, and let simmer 15 minutes. Add the cilantro, remove from the heat, and let infuse for 5 minutes.

  4. Pour the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer into a medium bowl, then discard the contents of the strainer. Pour the sauce back into the saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.

  5. Meanwhile, stir 1/4 cup cold water and 1 tablespoon cornstarch together in a small bowl until the cornstarch is dissolved.

  6. When the sauce is boiling, add the cornstarch slurry and whisk until the mixture thickens considerably. Remove from the heat and stir in 2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil.

Recipe Notes

Storage: The sauce can be refrigerated in an airtight container up to 2 weeks.