Diving Into Chinese American History Through Sweet-and-Sour Pork

My parents were terrible cooks. I was only saved from developing a lasting hatred of food by our routine visits to restaurants in Hong Kong. One special dish always left an indelible mark on my tastebuds: goo lo yok, better known as sweet-and-sour pork.

Goo lo yok is a tantalizing mixture of crispy pork chunks, bell peppers, and pineapples doused in sweet-and-sour sauce. It doesn’t take much to sell the universally appealing flavor profile — sweet and sour — to an overseas audience. Anything deep-fried is also a welcomed guilty pleasure. 

Sweet-and-sour pork can be found on the menu of mom and pop takeout joints and upscale restaurants. Yet both Chinese and Americans often misunderstand this beloved dish as inauthentic, cheap, westernized junk food. In a way, goo lo yok is reflective of the monolithic interpretation of Chinese cuisine in the United States, that it is casual and less refined than its peers. This uninformed narrative reveals the undercurrent of racism in something as basic as the food we consume every day.

Clarence Kwan, the author of Chinese Protest Recipes, featured sweet-and-sour pork as the “ultimate unifier” in his digital cookbook because he couldn’t imagine anyone — regardless of race and nationality — disliking it. The intricate history behind this dish also tells a compelling story of how Chinese immigrants have persevered, adapted, and thrived. 

“The intricate history behind this dish also tells a compelling story of how Chinese immigrants have persevered, adapted, and thrived.”

There exists a preconceived notion that Chinese people dismiss goo lo yok as trashy, Kwan told me. But I, for one, remember this dish as a crowd pleaser for locals in Hong Kong. 

While goo lo yok is conveniently translated to sweet-and-sour pork in English, no one can pinpoint the origin of its Cantonese name and what it means. One story says that Cantonese chefs named the dish after “gwei lo,” a derogatory term for white people, which would render the literal meaning of the dish as “white people meat.” This urban legend has little factual basis, but it hints at how the recipe may have been altered to please foreign palates. 

Kwan offers a different anecdote: the middle word “lo” means “mixing” in Cantonese and it could refer to a mixture of ingredients, in this case, imported foods. Goo lo yok, with its origin from Southern China, typically involves bell peppers, pineapples, and tomato puree or ketchup, which are less common in traditional Cantonese dishes. In the late 1800s, chefs in Guangdong may have reinvented a simple pork dish with the imported ingredients brought over by foreign merchants to better suit their appetite. Instead of ketchup, the more traditional recipe used shanzha, a Chinese hawthorn berry, according to the Hong Kong Michelin Guide

“The mysteriousness in this dish is that essentially it doesn’t involve any ‘Chinese’ ingredients,” Kwan said. “It’s a dish that has allowed a lot of immigrants to survive.”

The first massive wave of Chinese immigration to the U.S. was spurred by the California Gold Rush. Over 300,000 Chinese people entered the country from 1852 to 1882, when the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited further immigration of Chinese laborers. 

Immigration halt pressured Chinese restaurateurs to source a new clientele beyond their own community, according to Xiaohui Liu’s Foodscapes in Chinese America. They adapted their recipes for mainstream, middle-class European American customers. Chinese American innovations such as chop suey and chow mein, Liu noted, gained such explosive popularity that they were served in Army mess halls during World War II.

This commercial success, however, didn’t mean the American public had embraced Chinese cuisine, Liu added. What they accepted was a narrow range of Americanized Chinese dishes, tweaked to their liking. 

In the late 80s, Philip Chiang, the son of iconic Chinese American restaurateur Cecilia Chiang, was still wrestling with American taste at his restaurant. Chiang had tried to refine the sauce in sweet-and-sour pork to bring out a more authentic flavor. But his customers disliked the change, even if it came closer to the traditional recipe.  

Several decades later, trendy regional Chinese dishes have pushed sweet-and-sour pork aside as an unwanted, greasy disgrace to the family. Lily Cho, the author of Eating Chinese, asked readers to imagine its “gooey, unnaturally red-orangeness” and professed: “We all know this isn’t real Chinese food.” 

In the arena of authenticity, my favorite Hong Kong foods aside from goo lo yok may raise even more eyebrows: Spam and egg in macaroni soup, yuenyeung (coffee with tea), French toast with condensed milk. I am, as a friend once described me, a byproduct of British colonialism by virtue of having been born in Hong Kong under British rule. And as I try to maneuver the American melting pot, I struggle even more to fit into a pre-existing compartment of cultural identity.

Lucas Sin, executive chef at Nice Day, is a Hong Kong transplant like me. Nice Day, a modern Chinese American restaurant in New York, features refreshed classics like chow mein, orange chicken, and beef and broccoli. Starting Feb. 10, the restaurant will also introduce a revamped sweet-and-sour pork to its menu. Sin a
nd his team are determined to preserve this particular cuisine amid a decline in Chinese restaurants due to an aging population of restaurant owners and workers.  

The gooey redness of goo lo yok was present even in its earlier version. Shanzha, for instance, is a bright red berry that naturally tastes sweet-and-sour. Sin noted that a Michelin-starred restaurant in Hong Kong, Pang’s Kitchen, reinvented the sauce with strawberries. Ketchup was otherwise the go-to pantry staple, but he has also heard of Chinese American chefs using Kool-Aid for a bold red color.

“Every time a cuisine makes a change, there’s a good reason for it,” he said. 

To Sin, dismissing certain dishes or cuisines as inauthentic is overly simplistic. 

“Every time a cuisine makes a change, there’s a good reason for it.”

“Chinese American food is authentic to a different type of immigrant experience, a different style of cooking,” he said. “It’s an important segment of history.”

During our conversation via Zoom, Sin shared fascinating tidbits of knowledge — like his discovery of a wok being perfect for tossing pasta. His curiosity and respect for Chinese cooking would excite even outsiders of the gastronomic world such as myself. 

“I’d fight people to the death to tell them that Chinese food is the most complicated cuisine of all time,” Sin said. “Chinese food is like European food. It’s so diverse with thousands and thousands of years of history. It’s worth the respect.”

The perception of a cuisine, or the hierarchy of taste, is often based on a nation’s wealth or the impressions associated with its migrants, according to Krishnendu Ray, professor of food studies at New York University. The lesser status of Chinese food is not only evident in its lower price point, but also in the knee-jerk racist reactions to Asian American-owned businesses. Relentless media coverage about China’s wet markets and bat-eating habits has also further inflamed century-old stereotypes on Chinese food being nasty and barbaric

But Ray’s theory painted a more hopeful future. The elevation of Chinese cuisine will come eventually, he told me, as China continues to grow economically and more Chinese elites immigrate to the U.S. for education and work. Setbacks from the pandemic and visa restrictions under the previous administration are only a speed bump to the long-term upward trend, he suggested. 

“You can have xenophobia in one section of the population,” he said. “But you can also have increasing respect and willingness to pay a better price for high-quality Chinese food.” 

In the next two decades, America may develop the same cultural appreciation for Chinese food as they did for French, Italian, and Japanese cuisines, and short-term changes are already happening, Ray said. “If you go to a college town, a big city, Chinese food has become much more interesting than it used to be 10 to 15 years ago.”