What is it about the combination of sweet and sour that is so remarkably appealing? I'll admit that there is no flavor combination that I love quite as much as that tangy sweetness. I'm one of those people that asks for extra Chicken McNugget sweet and sour sauce to swab my fries in. Hell, I even did that after McDonald's started charging for it (no charge in China though – hurray!). While Chinese food is not exactly swimming in sweet and sour dishes the way Panda Express wants you to believe (i.e. all sweet and sour pork, lemon chicken/beef, orange beef/chicken, General Tso's chicken, etc., etc.), it's still to be found. For instance, Kung Pao chicken (gongbaojiding 宫爆鸡丁) is a delicious mix of sweet and sour with the addition of a little hot and spicy.
But my favorite sweet and sour dish thus far in Beijing are the peanuts at DaGui (大贵). As I babbled about previously, my new-found adoration for the humble peanut stemms from their vinegar peanuts and since that first bite, I've been obsessing over how to recreate these criminally addictive, sweet and sour little nuggets at home. As a sweet and sour fiend, after some research, I realized why this dish suits me exactly. It's the pure combination of equal parts good quality Chinese black vinegar (老陈醋) and straight-up white sugar.
The syrup made from these two ingredients is tossed with freshly fried peanuts, then combined with a handful of chopped green onion and cilantro to help brighten up the pure peanutty-ness. So simple yet so tasty, as the most addictive foods often are. It only takes six ingredients and six minutes to whip up.
Be forewarned though – once you learn how to make these, you'll pretty much be putting away your weight's worth of peanuts every week.
Recipe For Sweet Vinegar Peanuts
Ingredients for 1 cup of peanuts – but it's all approximate and adjustable for taste…i.e. do you like sweet, or sour more?
– 1 cup
peanuts (if you can, find the unfried, skin-on peanuts straight from the shells, without removing the skin (see the picture above). However, I'm sure normal roasted peanuts could also work)
– 1/2 cup of Chinese black vinegar (for the best flavor, you should find laochengchou 老陈醋, which is denser in flavor than regular black
– 1/2 cup of white sugar
– 1/4 cup of diced green onion and cilantro
– 2 big pinches of salt
1. Pour a tablespoon of oil into a wok and turn the heat to medium. When the oil is hot, put in the raw peanuts and gently toss them around in the oil until they turn from a pasty pink….
…into a toasty caramel brown. Scoop the peanuts out of the wok and drain most of the oil. Put in a bowl to cool and toss in the two big pinches of salt. They might be a bit soft from the frying, so let them sit a few minutes to crisp up as you're prepping the sauce. If you couldn't find fresh peanuts, skip this step and just mix in your already roasted/salted nuts for the next step.
2. For the syrup – just turn the heat on the same wok up to medium-high, and pour in the cup of vinegar, which should start frothing immediately.
Toss in the cup of sugar once the vinegar is hot, and stir continuously with a spoon to prevent the sugar from burning on the bottom of the pan. In a few minutes (3-5) the vinegar will melt the sugar and will reduce, creating a much thicker sauce (think cough syrup consistency).
3. At this point, all the separate ingredients are ready, so toss in the peanuts and the handful of green onions and cilantro, stir around a few times, and dump the nuts into a bowl.
4. Wait a few minutes for everything to cool down, then go at it with a pair of chopsticks. Or just your fingers. Seriously tasty either way.
Note: as a disclaimer, these aren't exactly the same as the peanuts at Dagui – those include the mysterious fish-smelling herb, and I believe a dash of fish sauce and more vinegar than sugar in their sauce, but I figured it's not worth it for me to find the strangely tasty, if pee-smelling herb, and adjusted the sauce for my own leanings towards sweet.