What Is Sweet and Sour Sauce and Where Does It Actually Come From?

In college, my go-to Chinese food order was sweet and sour chicken. How can you go wrong with deep-fried meat dipped in delicious sauce? At the time, I never thought twice about it, but now that I am an illustrious food writer for the internet, I feel it’s time to educate myself on what this sweet and sour sauce actually is and where it comes from.

What is sweet and sour sauce?

Americans tend to have a very specific idea in mind when talking about sweet and sour sauce. It’s that bright orange dipping sauce that accompanies the aforementioned sweet and sour chicken in Westernized Chinese food. It is said that this sauce evolved from the Cantonese culinary tradition, emigrating to the United States in the late 1800s and evolving into what we know today.

However, China is a massive country with a long history and huge variety of food cultures; each province has its own sweet and sour cooking traditions. The Cantonese sweet and sour pork dish tastes different than sweet and sour pork ribs from Shanghai which taste different than guo bao rou from Northeast China, and so on. 

On a broader scale, sweet and sour refers to the many sauces and cooking traditions found throughout China and other East Asian countries like South Korea and the Philippines. It often accompanies meat and fish either as a dipping sauce or marinade. Even the little duck sauce packet you get from Chinese takeout is a type of sweet and sour sauce. By limiting our definition of sweet and sour sauce to one particular thing, we are missing out on a huge array of culinary delights!

What is in sweet and sour sauce?

At its core, sweet and sour sauce is a mixture of sugar (sweet) and vinegar (sour). Depending on the origins of the sauce, that sugar can come from a wide range of sources: honey, plums and other fruits, syrups, and even melted candy. The sour often is from white rice vinegar, but can also include soy sauce or Worcestershire sauce. Garlic, clove, and ginger also can make an appearance.

Western sweet and sour sauce will often include the following: vinegar, sugar, cornstarch, tomato paste or ketchup, pineapple, green bell pepper, garlic, and onion. 

Is sweet and sour sauce gluten free?

Yes, most commercially available brands of sweet and sour sauce are gluten free. However, as with any processed foods, gluten can sneak in there. For example, cornstarch can be contaminated with gluten if made in a factory that also makes wheat products. This might introduce gluten to the sauce, which would trigger the most intolerant person, but brands like Kikkoman sport a Certified Gluten-Free label. As always, check your labels. 

About the Author

Luke Field

Luke Field is a writer and actor originally from Philadelphia. He was the former Head Writer of branded content at CollegeHumor and was also a contributing writer and actor to the CollegeHumor Originals cast. He has extensive improv and sketch stage experience, performing both at The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and with their Touring Company. In addition to writing, he also works as a Story Producer, most recently on season 4 of Accident, Suicide, or Murder on Oxygen. Keep your eyes peeled for his brief but impactful appearance as Kevin, the screaming security guard, in the upcoming feature The Disruptors, directed by Adam Frucci.

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  • I think you mean the La Choy Sweet and Sour Sauce is gluten free. The Kikkoman Sweet Chili Sauce is gluten free, but their Sweet and Sour Sauce isn’t.