Where do I buy Chinese takeaway Sweet and Sour Sauce?
April 6, 2006 2:03 PM   Subscribe

Does anyone know where chinese takeaways in the UK get their sweet and sour sauce and "smokey" noodle flavouring?

Every single chinese takeaway in the whole of the UK (and probably the rest of the world?) has the same basic sweet and sour sauce which is basically a bright red, transparent, sweet, tangy jelly. I'm guessing its made up from some kind of dried powder but havent got a clue where to buy it. I have tried various packets that claim they are the same but never come close. I've also tried various recipes found online to no avail. Is it a closely guarded secret that I shouldnt know about?

Also their chow mein noodles have a sweet smokey taste which im also sure comes from jar or tub as I saw "fried noodle sauce" sitting on the side in my local takeaway. I also cant seem to source this product but would love some for home use.

Anybody know anything about either of these products? As you can guess I am a complete pig.
posted by aqueousdan to Food & Drink (16 answers total)
I've always understood that the horrible orange gloop is a hangover from the early days of Chinese takeaways in the UK, back when we only had sweet and salt tastebuds. Thankfully, fewer and fewer places sell it.

Personally, I suspect that it's made up on the premises rather than being bought in. But if it's available, I bet these guys can help you find it. Or just ask your local chinese grocer/supermarket.

Failing that... the stuff sets when it's cold. Look for a recipe with a gelling agent, like agar-agar?
posted by Leon at 2:54 PM on April 6, 2006

I got some sweet and sour sauce like you described at my local supermarket. It's not that hard to find.
posted by delmoi at 3:10 PM on April 6, 2006

The smokiness probably comes from sesame oil.
posted by subtle-t at 5:17 PM on April 6, 2006

I would think it's also the heat in which the wok is cooked. The chefs cook the food in high flames really quickly, and add their soy sauce and sesame oil, which is really fragrant. I was surprised by how simple the recipe for chow mein was, and I have tried reproducing this at home. It never tasted right. I had all the ingredients. The main difference I think, is in cooking it.
posted by i8ny3x at 5:28 PM on April 6, 2006

The el-cheapo 30p tins of Sweet and Sour Sauce in the Tesco Value range are similar but a lot more watery and weaker tasting.. but on the right lines though.
posted by wackybrit at 5:48 PM on April 6, 2006

You can buy bottles of 'liquid smoke' in North America -- a kind of concentrated, well, smoke, I guess. Not sure if they use that stuff, but they may.

The jelliness of the sweet and sour sauce comes from making it with heaps of cornstarch, I believe, which congeals nicely once you get the trick down.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:58 PM on April 6, 2006

I agree with the chicken. Cornstarch (or cornflour, same thing) thickens sauces and gives it that shiny, gel-like appearance, as well as setting it when it's cold. I make my own sweet-and-sour sauce from a generic recipe (brown sugar, malt vinegar, the juice from a tin of pineapples, cornflour, plus a few other things) that tastes almost identical to the takeaway stuff, if a little tangier.
posted by tracicle at 7:06 PM on April 6, 2006

It might be that the smoky flavor you are referring to is a result of "wok hey", a particular flavor imparted to the food by the wok itself as a result of very high heat. I learned about this from Alton Brown (here's a transcript of the episode, "Squid Pro Quo"), who says most home ranges don't have nearly enough power to heat a wok high enough to get that effect (read from scene 6 on for wok-specific stuff). That might well be what i8ny3x was referring to. Alton Brown's solution, of course, is a more powerful burner; an outdoor burner from a turkey deep fryer. The transcript is probably a good course on the basics of stir-frying, the episode is a great watch.
posted by splice at 7:56 PM on April 6, 2006

And more discussion about wok-hey on this eGullet thread, including the same reason for home chinese cooking not tasting right; no way to get enough heat on a home range, it seems to be either an outdoor burner or a commercial range.

I get mine from the takeout place, it's less complicated.
posted by splice at 8:04 PM on April 6, 2006

I once watched the owner of a chinese food place here in the US make sweet and sour sauce. He poured the contents (don't know if it was half full, or completely full, but there was a lot) of dried tang mix into a gallon of water. He then added some red food coloring. There may or may not have been a tiny bit of gelatin involved in this process.
posted by JackarypQQ at 8:19 PM on April 6, 2006

A Chinese Takeaway in Glasgow I know used to make the sweet and sour sauce using Kia Ora diluting orange drink as the main ingredient.
posted by oh pollo! at 1:37 AM on April 7, 2006

Ying Wip?
posted by patricio at 2:12 AM on April 7, 2006

Is there a Chinese supermarket near you? At the one in Romford market hall, they sell tubs of Sweet & Sour and Curry sauce which is exactly the same as the ones from the takeaway. I suspect that no right-minded Chinese person would touch them with a 10ft bargepole, but they seem to sell out quickly to non-Chinese customers.
posted by essexjan at 2:42 AM on April 7, 2006

+1 for Chinese Supermarket/Wholesaler, here's my local.
posted by SpacemanRed at 4:24 AM on April 7, 2006

I'm almost certain they'll make the sweet and sour sauce themselves - all the ingredients to make it are dirt cheap, and it will be far more cost effective than buying it in.

Best recipe I have seen uses chicken or vegetable stock, brown sugar, rice vinegar, a little tomato ketchup (for the colour), soy sauce - combined and added to the wok after frying up the traditional sauce base of finely minced garlic, spring onion and ginger. Boil the sauce for a minute or two and add some cornflour / water mix (probably a couple of teaspoons of cornflour), then simmer for a minute. Getting the precise flavour is just a case of balancing the sweet (sugar), sour (vinegar) and umami (soy sauce) flavours harmoniously.
posted by bifter at 5:14 AM on April 7, 2006

My parents run a Chinese takeaway, with that disgusting bright red, transparent, sweet jelly-esque substance. I personally hate it - but then, hey, I watched them pouring a huge amount of powder and water together and watched it boil for hours and hours when I was a kid.

Go to your local authentic ethnic Chinese supermarket - the kind that has Chinese-only ads on the outside - and ask them. They'll probably direct you to some red powder in a white jar and tell you what to do. There's one six miles away from you according to Google Maps UK.

But support your local Chinese takeaway. We need the money!
posted by badlydubbedboy at 4:24 PM on April 7, 2006

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