Sweet and sour chicken balls are a delicacy that hails from Hong Kong. It is a mealtime favourite that is both sold by hawkers on the streets and served in gourmet restaurants. This versatile dish is a wonderful addition to anyone’s repertoire of cooking skills.
In this blog, we explore its origins and find out how to cook this after extensive research and our own trial-and-error.
What is it?
The Hong Kong version Sweet and sour chicken balls are a delectable dish of deep-fried chicken meat, shaped into round balls and covered with batter. It is then soaked in a sauce made of rice vinegar and sugar, and a secret weapon: freeze-dried pineapple powder.
We can serve the sweet and sour sauce on the side for dipping. We recommend pairing it with the scrumptious Singapore fried rice.
You can also opt for healthier choices, such as steamed brown rice or cauliflower rice. Some cooks also use the sauce to fry up some chow mein (flat yellow Asian rice noodles), adding extra water to make sweet and sour chicken noodles.
The sweet and sour sauce itself originates from China. The sauce is commonly used as a condiment for meat, vegetables, fish. When Western traders first visited China in the early 18th century, they too took a liking to the sauce. But there was one problem.
The Chinese cooked ribs with the sauce, and the bones were a turnoff for their Western visitors. A chef in Chencun used well-marbled pork shoulder instead. Apparently, their Western customers liked it so much, they exclaimed “good!”. Unable to understand English, the Chinese chefs termed the dish “gu lou” which means ‘sweet and sour’ in Chinese.
With mass migration taking place in the late 19th to early 20th century, many Cantonese immigrants moved to Hong Kong. They reinvented this dish.
Using chicken instead, they chopped the meat into bite-sized pieces, deep-fried it and then coat in the sweet and sour sauce. The major difference with the Hong Kong version of Sweet and sour chicken balls is in the batter. The chicken is battered first, then fried.
The total calories per serving of Sweet and sour chicken balls, according to Myfitnesspal is about 300 calories for 5-6 small meatballs using about 150-200g of meat.
A quick breakdown of the key ingredients: 85 g of lean chicken balls will be about 120 calories. If you use brown sugar, less than a cup will be about 66 calories. The bread for the batter, once fried, will be about 13 calories for 4 grams.
In this section, we will get our shopping list ready with the ingredients used to make Sweet and sour chicken balls.
- White vinegar
- Tomato sauce or ketchup
- Cornflour or potato starch
- Chicken stock
- Cold water (to make a smooth paste with cornflour)
Finally, get chicken breast or thighs, preferably cut into strips. Chicken thighs are preferred as they make juicy meatballs.
If it’s not in your kitchen already, salt, pepper and eggs. Ingredients should be easily obtained in any supermarket. If you prefer, you can also substitute chicken for other kinds of meat, such as beef or pork.
If you are looking to recreate this classic dish into a vegetarian or vegan variation, read on as we have a recommendation for that too!
For stir-frying (optional add-on)
A lot of recipes deep fry the chicken balls and serve them with the sweet and source sauce. In our recipe, we include an additional option of stir-frying onions, peppers and pineapples together with the sweet and sour sauce. Then, we coat the chicken balls with the stir-fried sauce and serve it on a plate.
We highly recommend this coating method as the addition of pineapple enhances the overall taste of the dish.
How to make vegan sweet and sour chicken balls
If you are on a vegan diet, then this section will be important for you. You can actually recreate vegan Sweet and sour chicken balls using seitan, a type of flour made from vegan ingredients.
We can recreate the dough with wheat gluten, chickpea flour, and nutritional yeast. A tablespoon of Italian seasoning and salt that is thrown into that mix will help to bring out the savoury flavour of meatballs.
For the sauce, cooking the ‘meatballs’ in a vegetable broth and adding apple cider vinegar will cause a little kick of the tastebud. Finally, add some liquid smoke to seal the deal.
Once the dough has been shaped into ‘meatballs’ and soaked in broth, just deep fry and serve with marinara sauce or add pineapple rings. This will emphasise the sour and sweet flavour which is the highlight of sweet and sour chicken balls – except now it is meat-free!
So you’ve got all your ingredients ready, and you want to know how to cook this Chinese takeaway classic dish to perfection. Here are some tips to know before you dive in.
- The crispy layer of the batter is a perfect counterfoil to the sour sauce. To get it nice and crackling, cornflour or very fine bread crumbs mixed into the batter does the trick.
- Pineapples are important to get the mix of sourness needed. But if you dislike pineapples, try pineapple juice which is more diluted.
- Alternatively, after you’ve cooked the sweet and sour chicken balls dish, serve it with pineapple slices. The faint taste of the slices will add that slightly tangy flavour.
- To add crunchiness, bamboo shoots or water chestnut slices can both add authenticity to your dish and a better bite.
- Lastly, for the chilli fans out there, a little sweet chilli sauce will help spice those meatballs.
We would like to note that this fakeaway chicken recipe is the same for sweet and sour prawns and pork. So, keep in mind the tips above if you’re cooking them too!
To create sweet and sour chicken balls in an air fryer, just follow the same recipe below. The main difference is to put the meatballs in the basket of an air fryer instead of using a wok.
Cook for 10 minutes at 180 degrees Celsius. You will still have to turn the meatballs around and cook again for another 5 minutes. The meat will seem dryer, but after you add the sauce, the taste is similar to deep-fried meatballs.
Because no oil is added, the air fryer version of this classic Chinese takeaway dish is healthier and has fewer calories. Some may also prefer the convenience of just cleaning up the air fryer rather than the wok and stove.
It is also possible to create a baked version of Sweet and sour chicken balls. Baking the meatballs means that the surrounding air heats the meat. In contrast, when fried, oils heat the meatballs cooked and leaves a greasy aftertaste.
Baking is a healthier choice without the oil and also faster as you leave the cooking in the oven. You will not get an oily aftertaste.
To bake meatballs, just preheat your oven to 260 degrees Celsius (500 degrees Fahrenheit). Grease your mini muffin pan with cooking spray. Stir the breadcrumbs and corn-starch together for the batter.
Then mix the ingredients for cooking the meatballs together–the onions, salt, pepper, eggs, and of course the meat. Roll the mixture into muffin-sized balls and lay it out on your baking tray.
Bake for 12-15 minutes. Once baked, serve with the sauce!
Sweet and Sour Chicken Balls (Hong Kong Style) | Chinese Takeaway
For the sauce
- 4 tbsp tomato sauce
- 3 tbsp white vinegar
- 4 tbsp sugar
- 2 tbsp cornflour
- 1 cube chicken stock
For the batter
- 2 pcs eggs, whisked
- 1 cup cornflour
- ½ cup cold water
- 600 g chicken breast, sliced into strips
- vegetable oil, for frying
For stir-frying (optional)
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 can pineapple slices
- 1 pc large onion, sliced
- 1 pc red pepper, sliced
- 1 pc green pepper, sliced
- Combine the tomato sauce, vinegar, sugar, chicken stock and cornflour in a small saucepan over low heat. Mix the ingredients until it simmers, forming a smooth sweet and sour chicken ball dipping sauce. Then let it cool.
- With the oil in the wok, heat it to high heat. Smother the chicken pieces in egg and cornflour. Deep fry the chicken pieces until crisp and light brown before removing them from the work to drain the oil.
- Using a clean wok, heat 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil in it. Then throw in the pineapple slices, onions and peppers. Stir-fry for a few minutes before adding in chicken and sauce. The mixture will bubble. Once it is thick and covers the chicken pieces, your sweet and sour chicken balls are ready.
- Depending on the cornflour, you may have to add more cold water to make sure the batter comes out smooth.
- As mentioned above, step 3 is optional and you may choose to serve the sauce as a dipping sauce for the chicken balls separately.
- To make the sauce less sour, use fewer slices of pineapple. Alternatively, cut a real pineapple into bite-sized pieces for better control.
Calories have been calculated using an online calculator. Nutritional information offered on Honest Food Talks is for general information purposes and are only rough estimations.
Khin’s Kitchen Youtube channel has a great video recipe on how to prepare this classic deep-fried dish. In her video, she shows the method of deep frying the balls to achieve a more deep golden brown colour.
Now you have created your own “fakeaway” Sweet and Sour chicken balls. Whether you eat on its own, or with some steamed rice, it is a great addition of protein to your meal.
Did you successfully cook this recipe at home? Show us a snapshot of your delicious dish by tagging us on Instagram @honestfoodtalks! We would love to see what you made!
If you liked this recipe, do check our other easy-to-follow Asian recipes on our website.