Sweet and sour sauce was one of the first Chinese-American condiments to cross over and become popular outside the Chinese-American community. It is a great dipping sauce, and you will need it to replicate takeout favorites like sweet and sour pork. If you don’t have any in your kitchen, there are quite a few sweet and sour sauce substitutes.
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Your best bet: Make your own sweet and sour sauce
Sweet and sour sauce is one of the easier Chinese food flavors to replicate at home. The simplest versions of it require only a mild vinegar such as rice vinegar combined with a sweetener. Popular sweeteners for sweet and sour sauce include sugar or honey.
The glossy red sauce that most Westerners know is primarily an American invention. While sweet and sour as a flavor profile has long been known in China, it did not exist as the syrupy condiment that most Chinese takeout restaurants in the West serve. Chinese-American sweet and sour sauce has made its way to Asia and exists there now as an import.
The thick version includes a few more ingredients than just vinegar and a sweetener. Most recipes contain a thickener as well as ketchup, which adds to its acidity and gives it a distinctive red color. You will also see ginger, garlic, and pineapple juice included in some recipes.
A decent second choice: Teriyaki sauce
Teriyaki sauce is another Asian sauce with a similar flavor profile to that of sweet and sour sauce. Many food historians agree that — like sweet and sour sauce — it is more of an Asian American sauce than a truly Asian one.
The version most Americans know may have come from Japanese immigrants to Hawaii. It has sweetness and slightly acidic fruitiness with a strong dose of umami. While recipes can vary, most include a sweetener like sugar or honey combined with subtly tart ingredients like mirin or sake.
Some teriyaki sauce recipes will include pineapple juice giving them the same kind of fruity quality that you will get from some sweet and sour sauce iterations.
Teriyaki sauce does not typically contain ketchup, so you won’t get the same color that you would get from sweet and sour sauce, it is also not as sweet.
In a pinch: General Tso’s sauce
The sauce used for General Tso’s chicken has many of the same elements as sweet and sour sauce. Both sauces are red and their flavors are similar enough that General Tso’s sauce could be considered a version of sweet and sour sauce. The main difference will be General Tso sauce’s emphasis on spice.
General Tso’s sauce has a stronger ginger flavor along with an increased garlic note, which does not show up in all sweet and sour sauce recipes. General Tso’s sauce will also contain chili peppers, which are not typical ingredients in recipes for sweet and sour sauce.
Plum sauce is a Chinese sauce made — as the name suggests — with plums. It is sweet and acidic like sweet and sour sauce but is also fruitier. Like sweet and sour sauce you can use it as a dipping sauce for fried foods.
Duck sauce is yet another Chinese American sauce with a sweet and sour flavor profile. Duck sauce is typically made with plum sauce but can also be made using a variety of fruits like pears and plums, which make it fruitier than most kinds of sweet and sour sauce.