In Eastern Chinese cuisine
Some authors say that the original sweet and sour came from the of Hunan, but the sauce in this area is a weak vinegar and sugar mixture not resembling what most people, including the Chinese, would call sweet and sour. Many places in China use a sweet and sour sauce as a dipping sauce for fish and meat, rather than the cook in style of western cuisine. This style of using sauces is popular amongst Chinese who tie certain sauces to particular meats such as ''chili and soy'' for shrimp and ''vinegar and garlic'' for goose. There are, however, some dishes, such as the or Loong har kow , in which the meat is cooked and a sauce added to the wok before serving.
Not all dishes are cooked, some, such as "sweet and sour fruit and vegetable" salad from the eastern regions of China, also find their way in Chinese cuisine . This dish combines salad vegetables such as cucumber, tomato, bell pepper and onion with a mixture of pineapple, vinegar and sugar to make a cold served dish.
In China traditionally the sauces are made from mixing sugar or honey with a sour liquid such as rice vinegar, soy sauce and spices such as ginger and cloves. Sometimes a paste made from tomatoes is used but this is rare and normally restricted to western cooking.
Cantonese sweet and sour sauce is the direct ancestor of sauce of the same name in the West, and originally developed for sweet and sour pork. The late renowned chef from Hong Kong, Leung King, included the following as his sweet and sour source sauce recipe: white rice vinegar, salt, Chinese brown candy, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, and . Hong Kong's gourmet Willie Mak, himself a long time friend of Leung, suggests contemporary eateries not to resort to cheap bulk manufactured versions of vinegar, ketchup, and Worcestershire sauce, or the sauce will risk being too sharp in taste and breaking the balance of flavours. He suggests the more acidic white rice vinegar could be replaced with apple cider vinegar, and ketchup and Worcestershire sauce should be of renowned gourmet brands.
In Western cuisine
Western cultures use sweet and sour sauce in two different ways. Dishes can either include the sauce as an ingredient in cooking or use the sauce as a pour-over or dipping sauce for the meal.
Chinese restaurants in Western countries commonly serve chicken, pork or shrimp that has been battered and deep-fried, then served with a sweet and sour sauce poured over the meat. Although this preparation is considered traditional across American and European countries, it does not resemble authentic Chinese methods of preparation, except for those found in certain Cantonese or Hunan regions. In Europe it is also common to find the sweet and sour sauce cooked with sliced green peppers, onions and pineapple before it is poured over the meat.
Many western dishes involve cooking the meat with a variety of ingredients to make a complete sweet and sour dish in the manner of the Gu lo yuk. The most popular dishes are those of pork and shrimp. In French cuisine, it has been developed contrary to traditional French cooking practices and preparation of sweet and sour sauce often involves immersing the food in a plentiful amount of sauce.
Common in Western sweet and sour sauce is the addition of fruits such as pineapple and vegetables such as sweet pepper and green onions. Traditional rice vinegar is becoming more readily available due to the increase in Asian food stores but a mixture of vinegar and dry sherry is often still used in sweet and sour dishes. Also common is the use of tomato ketchup to give a stronger red colour to the dish and to add a Western taste. Moreover, most supermarkets across Europe and America carry a range of prepared sweet and sour sauces either for adding to a stir-fry or for use as a dipping sauce.
Primarily in North America, sweet and sour sauce is available in small plastic packets or containers at Chinese take-out establishments for use as a dipping sauce.
A number of variations are used in Barbecue cuisine, either home-made or prepared from a number of common brands.
Besides American Chinese restaurants, popular fast food restaurants such as McDonald's and Burger King often carry sweet and sour sauce packets.