Let’s talk about Sweet and Sour Chicken for a second. It is probably not surprising to read that while this dish is served in Chinese restaurants in many Western countries, it doesn’t really exist in China. There are several sauces in China that incorporate both sweet and sour tastes, the most common being from the Hunan province, but they’re still a far cry from what you can get at your local Chinese-American restaurant. The reality is that this dish is now nearly more of an American dish than Chinese. On the flip side, the Chinese have their own interpretation of Western tastes – like flying fish roe and salmon cream cheese stuffed crust pizza (Hong Kong Pizza Hut).
But at the end of the day, it’s still a unique and comforting meal, and I thought it would be fun to try and replicate it using Paleo-friendly ingredients. My first order of business was figuring out how to make the sauce without resorting to ketchup as a base; instead, I used a combination of chicken stock, tomato paste, apple cider vinegar, tamari, honey, and spices. For the chicken, I used my new breading technique highlighted in Tuesday’s chicken nugget recipe. Lastly, I found that gently simmering the sauce while I cooked the chicken helped the sauce ingredients to perfectly marry, resulting in a balanced, delicious flavor.
For this recipe in particular, I teamed up with the folks at Vitacost; they offered to have me experiment with their online store and see what I could come up with. I had been thinking of trying out this Sweet and Sour Chicken recipe for a while now so it seemed like a good fit. I was surprised at how easy and cost-effective it was to use their shop; many of the items in their store were comparable or even cheaper than what I can find locally. Not only that, they had many of the brands we already buy. It was a lot of fun to conceive an entire meal using only their store items (minus the produce and meat). I think Vitacost would be a great resource for three types of people: (1) those who don’t live near a gourmet or international market, (2) those who have a high cost of living (big cities, for example), and (3) those who don’t have time to rummage through the aisles of several stores to find the right ingredients.
Okay, let’s get cooking.
Paleo, Gluten-Free Sweet and Sour Chicken
1 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
3 tbsp honey
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 tbsp tamari (coconut aminos okay)
1/2 tsp salt, more to taste
1/4 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp white pepper, more to taste
1/4 cup refined coconut oil or lard, more if needed
2 lbs chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized chunks
1/2 cup plus 1 tbsp arrowroot starch, divided
1 tsp salt, more to taste
1 tsp white pepper, more to taste
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 tsp sesame seeds
2 stalks green onion, sliced
1. In a saucepan, combine the sauce ingredients. Bring to a simmer over med/low heat, then reduce the heat to low to gently simmer as you prepare the rest of the meal; stir occasionally.
2. Preheat your oven to 250F. In a wok or skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Combine 1/2 cup arrowroot starch and 1 tsp each salt and pepper. Toss the chicken pieces with the starch mixture, until evenly coated. With your fingers, dip a starchy chicken piece in the egg, shake off the excess egg, then add to the oil. Repeat until you have filled your skillet; be careful not to overcrowd the chicken pieces. Fry the chicken until cooked through, flipping every two minutes, about 6-8 minutes per batch. As you finish each batch, place the cooked pieces on a plate lined with paper towels; put them in the oven to stay warm. You should be able to cook the chicken pieces in about 3 or 4 batches, depending upon the size of your skillet. The oil should reach halfway up the chicken pieces, add more oil if needed.
3. Once the chicken has cooked through, finish the sauce. At this point, the sauce’s flavors should have married nicely; taste the sauce and add more salt or white pepper if needed. If the sauce is too dark and strong tasting, add a little more chicken stock to thin it out. At this point, the sauce should be about as thick as tomato soup and should have a sharp but not overwhelming flavor. In a small bowl, add 1 tbsp of arrowroot starch and a little cold water; stir together to make a slurry. Raise the sauce temperature to medium; once bubbling, add the arrowroot starch slurry and stir until thickened. Remove from heat.
4. Toss the chicken pieces with the sauce, then garnish with sesame seeds and sliced green onions. Serve with white rice or cauliflower rice.
** While the idea of adding egg to the batter after the starch seems counterintuitive, it’s the secret behind the chicken’s crisp yet spongy texture. Just be sure to cook the pieces at no higher than medium heat, otherwise the egg will burn before the chicken is cooked through.
** This technique will work with any number of proteins – sliced steak or pork chop, or shrimp.
** For even more tender chicken, brine the chicken in 1/2 cup water mixed with 1 tbsp kosher salt for an hour before starting this recipe. Be sure to drain and pat dry your chicken after brining.
** Use this starch-then-egg batter technique for any number of chicken nugget recipes. When not tossed in sauce, they have a texture similar to the same nuggets you’d find in Happy Meals. Experiment by adding other ground spices to the starch to give the chicken flavor even when “naked”; marinate the chicken pieces in pickle juice beforehand for an even tastier experience (recipe here).
“naked” chicken nuggets