RECIPES: Explore the world of sweet-and-sour sauces

Sweet-and-sour sauces and condiments are prevalent in many global food cultures. Styling and photo by Meridith Ford for The AJC

Credit: Meridith Ford

Combined ShapeCaption
Sweet-and-sour sauces and condiments are prevalent in many global food cultures. Styling and photo by Meridith Ford for The AJC

Credit: Meridith Ford

Credit: Meridith Ford

There’s an old maxim that every culture has a version of chicken soup. I’m adding an addendum to that commonplace canon: agrodolce.

In Italian, it’s sour (agro) and sweet (dolce); in French, aigre-doux, more commonly known as gastrique — the reduction of sugar and vinegar to create a sweet-tart sauce, or condiment. But it seems every culture has some form of a sweet-and-sour concoction, from the sticky Guangdong- and Hunan-inspired stuff that coats your favorite Chinese takeout, to the sugar and vinegar used to cure herring in Scandinavia. We dip into them, drizzle them, spread them, baste with them, sometimes even dress a salad with them.

With four primary tastes to our tongues — sweet, sour, salty, bitter — a sweet-and-sour sauce satisfies two. That’s a hefty responsibility for an itty-bitty condiment. And yet, our insatiable desire as humans to add a dash of sour to something sweet (or vice versa) is an ancient one, and we’ve been doing it for thousands of years. Each version, no matter the culture, has morphed and changed with time (and migration), as we added or subtracted from the ingredients that were on hand, grown or brought to the diaspora that is human history.

To wit:

Agrodolce — Italian for “sour, sweet,” this reduction of sugar and vinegar can be enjoyed on a variety of foods. See recipe below.

Chakalaka — A South African relish made with chiles, tomatoes, peppers, cabbage vinegar, spices (like masala) and traditionally eaten with braai (barbecue).

Chamoy — A piquant condiment from Mexico served on fresh fruits and ice cream. Think of it as Mexico’s ketchup. See recipe below.

Gastrique — The French form of agrodolce, or aigre-doux, made with sugar or honey and vinegar. The French often use “sweeter” vinegars, such as apple cider or sherry, and serve the sauce on hefty cheeses and meats.

Nam chim kai — Thailand’s dipping sauce is a mix of sugar or honey, vinegar, garlic and fish sauce.

Nuoc cham — A vinegar-and-sugar-based sauce laced with chiles and fish sauce. Ubiquitous in Viet cooking, it translates to “dipping sauce.”

Rotkohl — German sweet-and-sour red cabbage, traditionally made with onions, apples and cider vinegar. Technically, it’s a side dish served with roasts, but when it comes to a list of sweet and sour, it really shouldn’t be missed.

It’s not too hard to see the repeating pattern here: The two ingredients integral to creating a true sweet-and-sour sauce — no matter what part of the world you’re in — are sugar and vinegar. Together they create the complexity that we find ourselves craving, whether we’re dipping spring rolls or slicing into a pork roast. These simple accompaniments are tiny gastronomical time capsules meant to be adjusted and tweaked based on the ingredients at hand, and in modern times, the ingredients you like.

Dip in and enjoy.

Meridith Ford is an Atlanta-based chef and food writer and the owner of Cremalosa gelateria in Decatur.

RECIPES

Sweet-sour sauces and condiments are not difficult to make. Ingredients for these recipes for agrodolce, olives and chamoy are easy to substitute (most of the time), so if there’s an herb or spice that doesn’t appeal, simply leave it out.

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Italian agrodolce is good with everything from cheese to fish to meat. (Styling and photo by Meridith Ford for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Meridith Ford

Italian agrodolce is good with everything from cheese to fish to meat. (Styling and photo by Meridith Ford for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Meridith Ford

Combined ShapeCaption
Italian agrodolce is good with everything from cheese to fish to meat. (Styling and photo by Meridith Ford for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Meridith Ford

Credit: Meridith Ford

Sicilian-Inspired Agrodolce

Many versions of this Italian condiment/sauce can be found across Italy. But it is the Sicilian version, with red pepper flakes, that I enjoy most. Some versions use only sugar as the “sweet”; others use balsamic instead of red wine vinegar. Whatever you choose, agrodolce will complement just about anything — from cheeses to fish to meats and even as a drizzle over gelato. I use the pistachios to sprinkle over any dish with agrodolce, but if you’re not a fan, simply omit them. Because of the honey, this sauce will thicken as it cools, so take care not to reduce it for too long — just until it coats the back of a spoon, about 15 to 20 minutes. If you’d like a thinner sauce, reduce for less time as you desire.

Sicilian-Inspired Agrodolce
  • 1 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 cup pistachios, toasted, for sprinkling over the agrodolce, optional
  • In a small saucepan, combine the vinegar, honey, sugar, red pepper flakes and a pinch of salt. Stir to combine. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, and simmer, uncovered, until the sauce is reduced and thick, about 15 to 20 minutes. Skim the red pepper flakes out if desired. Serve over meat, fish, vegetables, cheeses or dessert. Garnish with toasted pistachios, if desired. Makes 2 cups.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per 1-tablespoon serving: 50 calories (percent of calories from fat, 36), 1 gram protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 2 grams total fat (trace saturated fat), no cholesterol, 5 milligrams sodium.
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Syrian sweet-and-sour olives are an integral part of a Middle Eastern mezze. (Styling and photo by Meridith Ford for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Meridith Ford

Syrian sweet-and-sour olives are an integral part of a Middle Eastern mezze. (Styling and photo by Meridith Ford for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Meridith Ford

Combined ShapeCaption
Syrian sweet-and-sour olives are an integral part of a Middle Eastern mezze. (Styling and photo by Meridith Ford for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Meridith Ford

Credit: Meridith Ford

Syrian Sweet-and-Sour Olives

Olives are one of our oldest cultivated foods, dating to Syria and Palestine as early as 3000 B.C. It should be no surprise that they are an integral part of a Middle Eastern mezze. For this recipe, look for brine-cured olives such as Castelvetrano. They’re easy to find in your local supermarket, or Whole Foods. You can speed up the flavor process by sweating the onions in the olive oil, then combining the rest of the ingredients with a quick stir. It’s easy to get creative and add your own flavors — orange or lemon peel, herbs, spices. Remember to bring the olives to room temperature so that the oil has time to thin before serving.

Syrian Sweet-and-Sour Olives
  • 2 cups medium green olives, brine cured
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 1 small red onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 10-15 whole black peppercorns
  • Rinse and drain the olives. In a small bowl, mix the olives together with the olive oil, water, onion, brown sugar and pepper. Place in an airtight container or sanitized jar. Store for 3 days to 3 months in the refrigerator. Allow to come to room temperature before serving to allow the olive oil to de-solidify. Makes about 3 cups.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per 1-tablespoon serving: 32 calories (percent of calories from fat, 87), trace protein, 1 gram carbohydrates, trace fiber, 3 grams total fat (trace saturated fat), no cholesterol, 154 milligrams sodium.
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The flavor of Mexican chamoy is heightened with hibiscus and chiles. (Styling and photo by Meridith Ford for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Meridith Ford

The flavor of Mexican chamoy is heightened with hibiscus and chiles. (Styling and photo by Meridith Ford for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Meridith Ford

Combined ShapeCaption
The flavor of Mexican chamoy is heightened with hibiscus and chiles. (Styling and photo by Meridith Ford for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Meridith Ford

Credit: Meridith Ford

Chamoy Sauce

This Mexican flavor bomb packs a fun punch spooned on everything from chicken to chickpeas; mangoes to molletes. In Mexico, it’s most commonly found on fresh fruit or ice cream. It can be as easy or as complicated as you want to make it. Some recipes use nothing more than apricot jam, water and seasonings such as chiles. Others involve infusing herbs, spices and chiles into the apricot mixture. (This one falls somewhere in the middle.)

Chamoy has a rich history. According to food historian Rachel Laudan, it was most likely brought to Western Mexico by the Chinese via Hawaii, where sweet-and-sour snacks are known as “crack seed,” and made from the Prunus mume — a fruit often mistaken for a plum, but more like an apricot (think of Japanese umeboshi). If you find your chamoy too sweet, omit the prunes and use the same amount of apricots as a substitute. Whatever you do, try not to leave out the dried hibiscus. The sauce gets its sour flavor from these petals, and they offer up an irresistible crimson color as well.

Chamoy Sauce
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 cup dried apricots
  • 1/4 cup dried hibiscus flowers (available at most Latin groceries, and at Your DeKalb Farmers Market)
  • 1/4 cup prunes
  • 6 dried serrano chiles, stemmed and seeded
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup fresh lime juice
  • Salt to taste
  • In a medium saucepan, combine the water, dried apricots, hibiscus flowers, prunes and chiles and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cover. Let the mixture simmer gently until the fruit is soft and plump, about 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.
  • Pour the cooled mixture into a blender or food processor. Add the sugar and process on high until smooth. Stir in the lime juice and salt. Makes about 4 cups.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per 1-tablespoon serving: 18 calories (percent of calories from fat, 6), trace protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, trace total fat (trace saturated fat), no cholesterol, 1 milligram sodium.
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