This easy vegan sweet and sour recipe is prepared with canned pineapple juice [or syrup] to create the best, easiest, thickest, glossiest, deliciously sweet and sour sauce that beautifully coats the tofu, stir-fry vegetables and black beans.
Alternatively, replace the canned pineapple with canned orange or mandarin pieces, peaches, or mango. Also the canned pineapple pieces are entirely optional so these can be left out if a no-pineapple pieces sweet and sour recipe is preferred.
Enjoy with rice or noodles for the best vegan adaptation of the Chinese take-out meal 'sweet and sour pork'.
This Sweet and Sour Tofu, Vegetables and Black Beans recipe can be prepared with either canned pineapple in juice or syrup, or canned oranges such as mandarins. It is entirely optional as to whether to include the pineapple or orange pieces or chunks within the finished dish as many people dislike fruit within savoury meals.
Origins of sweet and sour dishes
The sweet and sour flavour combination has been popular in many cultures throughout the ages since ancient and medieval times, including China, Europe, Britain, and the Middle East.
Sweet and sour dishes in British medieval times
Surprisingly, sweet and sour dishes were common in British medieval times.
One example of a medieval sweet and sour recipe is Boar in Egurdouce [A Red Sweet and Sour Stew], a dish from England that was prepared with a combination of meat such as pork and boar, sugar or honey, dried fruits, nuts such as pine kernels or almonds, spices such as cinnamon, cloves, saffron, and ginger, sweet wine and wine vinegar [see Peter Brears Book ''Cooking & Dining in Medieval England'', pg234, for more information].
Sweet and sour dishes were often served as part of a castle feast or banquet. They were considered to be a luxurious dish, and they were often served to guests of honor.
Sweet and sour dishes in medieval France
An example of a French medieval sweet and sour dish is a recipe called Aigre-doux, which translates to mean ''bittersweet'' or ''sweet and sour'', and was prepared with chicken, various fruits and vinegars.
The vegetables in this recipe are suggestions only and can be easily replaced with your favourite stir-fry veggies or even better and quicker - use a ready-prepared packet of stir-fry mix either fresh or frozen.
Sweet and Sour dishes in Ancient China
In China, the use of sweet and sour flavour profiles can be traced back to ancient times with many believing that the balance of sweet and sour in Chinese cuisine is a reflection of the philosophical concept of Yin and Yang, where opposing forces are in harmony with one another.
Sweet and sour dishes date back to at least the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). During this time, sweet and sour dishes were often made with fruits, such as pears, plums, or grapes, along with vinegar or verjuice. The sweet and sour flavor combination was considered to be a sign of wealth and luxury, and it was often served to guests of honor.
The typical modern sweet and sour sauce often includes vinegar and sugar, with regional variations including different ingredients, for example in Cantonese cuisine, the sauce might be made from rice vinegar, sugar, soy sauce, tomato ketchup or catsup which replaces the more traditional sour ingredient tamarind, and gives the sauce the bright red colour found in many Western Chinese take-away meals.
Although, it can be surprising to learn that the Western favourite tomato ketchup may actually have originated in Asian cuisine.
Today, sweet and sour dishes are still popular in China as they are in many other parts of the world. The sauce for these dishes has continued to evolve, and there are now many different variations.
British Chinese take-aways
Chinese cuisine, including sweet and sour dishes, became popular in the UK during the mid to late 20th century with many accounts suggesting that Chinese take-outs gained popularity during the 1950s and 1960s. This period saw an increase in immigration from Hong Kong and China due to political and economic changes, including the end of British colonial rule in Hong Kong in 1997.
The Chinese immigrants opened restaurants and brought with them traditional recipes and cooking techniques, introducing the British to a wider range of Chinese dishes. Sweet and sour dishes, with their bright and appealing colours and flavours, soon became a hit. In particular, sweet and sour pork (known as "Gu Lou Yuk" in Cantonese) was a favorite.
Moreover, the dishes served in these restaurants were often adapted to cater to local tastes and included British food such as pies, slices of white bread, and chips alongside the Chinese menu.
Vegan sweet and sour tofu
This vegan adaptation of a Chinese sweet and sour dish features cubes of tofu fried in coconut oil until golden, along with stir-fried green bell peppers, carrots, celery, baby corn, green beans and black beans, before everything is simmered in a thick, glossy sweet and sour sauce. The sweet and sour sauce is prepared with canned pineapple syrup or juice, white wine vinegar, soy sauce, tomato ketchup, sugar [we used ordinary granulated sugar but your preferred sugar or sweetener is fine], vegetable broth and cornflour [cornstarch] to thicken.
For another delicious fruity plant-based recipe do try out our Vegan Mango 'chicken' Curry which is prepared with canned or fresh mangos, potatoes, bell peppers, chickpeas, and baby corn cobs.
How to prepare vegan sweet and sour tofu
Preparing this vegan sweet and sour tofu with black beans and stir-fry vegetables is really easy.
Once the vegetables have been sliced and chopped, the sauce ingredients can be stirred together - white wine vinegar, sugar, salt, tomato ketchup, soy sauce, Chinese 5 spice powder, vegetable broth, canned pineapple syrup or juice [or replace with canned orange juice or syrup drained from a can of oranges or mandarins], and set aside until required.
To begin, cook the tofu in coconut oil for 10 minutes, flipping the sides over frequently. Push the tofu to one side and cook the onions.
Next, add the carrot and celery batons and cook for 3 minutes. Pop in the green beans and cook for a few more minutes.
Push the veggies and tofu aside and drop in the sliced garlic, followed by the bell peppers. Give everything a good stir.
Pop a lid over the pan and leave to cook for 5 minutes, stirring a few times to ensure all the veggies are cooked but still have a bite to them.
Next, remove the lid and add the baby corn along with the cornflour [cornstarch].
Add the can of drained and rinsed black beans and pour in the sweet and sour sauce.
Stir well and bring to a gentle boil and cook for 3-4 minutes until the sauce is thick and glossy.
Season with salt and pepper to taste, and sprinkle sliced spring onions [green onions] over the top.
The canned pineapple pieces or orange or mandarin pieces can be scattered over the top, or mixed through the sweet and sour dish, or if preferred omitted and used for a different recipe. One of my kids prefer the pineapple pieces in a little pile at the side of their plate not touching the rest of the sweet and sour dinner!
Recipe notes and FAQ's
Leftover sweet and sour tofu can be stored within a covered container and placed in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Or frozen for 2-3 months.
To reheat leftover sweet and sour tofu, add it to a wok, skillet or deep fry pan along with a few tablespoons of water and reheat for a few minutes or until piping hot, stirring frequently.
Or add the sweet and sour to a microwave dish along with a few tablespoons of water and pop a microwave safe lid loosely over the dish.
Reheat for 2 minutes, stir well, and then heat for another minute, and repeat until piping hot. Leave the dish to sit for 1 minute before eating as it will continue to reheat for up to a minute after reheating in the microwave.
Yes, sweet and sour tofu is perfect for glute-free diets. Simply ensure that your tomato ketchup [which it usually is but best to check ingredients], vegetable broth or stock, and soy sauce is free from gluten-ingredients or has gluten-free certification. For the soy sauce, go with Tamari soy sauce which is usually gluten-free or use coconut aminos instead.
Yes, the sweet and sour tofu can be prepared as an oil-free dish.
The coconut oil does allow the tofu to become golden with crispy bits but if your are on an oil-free diet the tofu could be baked in an oven or air-fried in an air-fryer minus the oil.
Use our Crispy Tofu Bites recipe as a guide [leave out the oil and perhaps use a few tablespoons of Aqua Faber or canned chickpea water instead] and check out the recipe notes which has a simple method and tips for cooking oil-free crispy tofu as well as air-fried tofu.
Once your tofu pieces have been baked or air-fried they can be added to the wok after the vegetables have been cooked, so that the tofu can heat through while the sauce thickens.
To prepare the stir-fry vegetables with no oil simply replace the oil with a few tablespoons of vegetable broth, and follow the main recipe, stirring the vegetables frequently so that they stir-fry in the broth.
The cooking times may need to be adjusted and more small amounts of broth will need to be added as the broth evaporates, so that the vegetables do not stick to the pan.
Be careful to only use small amounts of broth each time as you don't want to actually boil the vegetables, and use a good non-stick pan and this will make the process easier.
Absolutely. Using a ready-prepared packet or stir-fry vegetable mix either fresh or frozen will save time cooking and preparing the individual vegetables.
Although, depending on the size of the vegetables the cooking times may have to be adjusted as thinner smaller pieces will cook quicker than thicker larger cut vegetables.
Also frozen vegetable stir-fry tends to be quicker to cook compared to fresh cut vegetables.
Lastly, depending on the stir-fry package size you may need to use two packages so that there are plenty of veggies to go around!
Chinese five-spice powder is a spice blend common in Chinese and Asian cooking and the ground spices are made up of five individual ground spices. The actual spices included may vary depending on the region and the amount of each spice can also differ so some blends may have more fennel than peppercorns, etc.
The most traditional 5 spice blend includes:
Star Anise: This spice has a strong, sweet, and licorice-like flavour and is usually the dominant flavor in five-spice powder.
Cloves: Cloves have a warm, sweet, and slightly bitter flavour that complements the other spices.
Chinese Cinnamon (or Cassia Bark): Chinese cinnamon is similar to the cinnamon commonly used in the West but has a stronger, spicier flavour.
Sichuan (or Chinese) Peppercorns: These have a unique fruity flavour that's not just spicy but can also cause harmless numbing and tingling sensations within the mouth!
Fennel Seeds: Fennel seeds contribute a sweet, slightly licorice-like flavour.
The blend of these spices creates a balance of flavours such as sweet, sour, bitter, savory or umami, and spicy, and some blends might include additional ingredients or substitutes, like white pepper, ginger, nutmeg, or cardamom, but the five spices listed above are the most traditional.
Chinese five-spice powder has a unique flavour profile, but if you can't find it or you're in a pinch, you can make a substitute using other spices. Here are a few suggestions:
Easy home-made 5 spice blend: If you already have the individual ground spices, you could make your own Chinese 5 spice blend. A basic recipe might be: 1 teaspoon ground star anise, 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, ½ teaspoon ground cloves, ½ teaspoon ground fennel seed, and ½ teaspoon ground Sichuan (or black) peppercorns.
Allspice and cinnamon: Mix equal parts of ground allspice and ground cinnamon as a quick and easy substitute. It won't completely provide the full flavour profile of Chinese five-spice powder, but these two spices are often used in some versions of 5 spice it and it can mimic some of the sweet and warm notes.
Garam masala: This is an Indian spice blend that has some similar flavours, including cinnamon and cloves. It also includes other spices like cardamom and black pepper. The flavour of this spice blend is different, but it can work in a pinch.
Pumpkin pie spice: This spice blend shares several ingredients with Chinese five-spice powder, including cinnamon and cloves and it also usually contains ginger and nutmeg. While pumpkin spice leans more towards sweet dishes, it can work as a substitute in some savory recipes.
These alternatives won't duplicate completely the flavour of Chinese five-spice powder but they should provide a similar warm spice to the recipe, but do adjust the quantity according to your taste.
The most common accompaniments for a sweet and sour dish is rice or noodles, with perhaps some crunchy prawn crackers. There are a few vegan friendly, Thai, Chinese, or Asian style crackers available that are similar to prawn crackers such as the Co-op supermarkets [UK] Thai Inspired Spicy Crackers.
A few crispy vegetable spring rolls would also be a great accompaniment as would a simple miso broth for a starter dish.
Miso broth can be prepared quickly and easily. There are three most common types of miso that can produce tasty broth: White [Shiro], Red [Aka] or Mixed miso [Awase] which is a blend of red and white. For a mild miso broth white miso is best or for a stronger flavour go with red or mixed miso.
The miso can be simply mixed through boiling water until fully dissolved and can be heated through for 1-2 minutes. Its trial and error how much miso you add as it depends on how salty or strong tasting you prefer your broth, so start with a tablespoon for about 2 cups [500ml] of water adding a little more if liked.
Additions can be added to the miso broth such as very thin carrot batons, sliced spring onions [scallions], edamame beans, small pieces of seaweed, spinach, small pieces of daikon or ordinary radishes, black beans, dried mushrooms, peas, sweetcorn, sesame seeds, chilli flakes, sweet chilli sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil, etc.
Yes, the pineapple can be replaced with a different canned fruit such as mandarins, oranges, mango or peaches, in either juice or syrup. Alternatively, use fresh fruit slices and fresh fruit juice.
Leftover sweet and sour tofu and veggies can be remade into a variety of delicious new dinners or quick lunches. Here are a few ideas:
Stir-Fry Fried Rice: Use the sweet and sour tofu as a base for a quick stir-fry with leftover cooked rice adding additional veggies if you have any to use up, and perhaps a splash of soy sauce or tamari.
Tofu Scramble: Cut up the tofu and vegetables into smaller pieces and reheat in a non-stick skillet or fry pan, stirring frequently, until piping hot. Perhaps season with a little nutritional yeast flakes and a pinch of turmeric or paprika to create a delicious tofu scramble. Serve over a slice of toasted bread for a quick lunch or dinner.
Tacos or Wraps: Use the tofu and vegetables as a filling for tacos or wraps and add some fresh veggies, salad, avocado, and perhaps a squeeze of lime juice.
Salad Topping: Cube or slice the tofu and slice the veggies and use it as a protein-packed topping on a fresh salad. Any sweet and sour sauce that comes with the filling will provide a tasty salad dressing.
Noodle Soup: Cut the tofu and vegetables into small cubes and add it to a vegetable noodle soup made simply with vegetable broth and quick cook noodles, the sweet and sour tofu, veggies and black beans will provide tasty flavours. Although sweet chilli sauce, soy sauce, drizzle of sesame oil, etc can be added for extra flavours.
Yes, home-made sweet and sour spring rolls are absolutely delicious and are the perfect way to use up a small amount of sweet and sour tofu and transform it into a batch of crispy spring rolls. Rehydrated rice noodles are a tasty addition to spring rolls and the noodles can be mixed through the sweet and sour tofu filling.
Here's a guide for preparing the best sweet and sour spring rolls:
Preparation: Allow your leftover tofu and veggies to cool and then slice or dice the tofu and veggies into smaller pieces if they are too large, just so that they fit better inside the spring roll.
Rolling: Soak a rice paper wrapper in warm water until it softens, then lay it flat on a clean surface. Place a small amount of the tofu mixture in the center of the wrapper. Fold the wrapper over the filling, then fold in the sides and continue rolling until it's sealed. Repeat with the rest of your wrappers and filling.
Cooking: The spring rolls can either be fried in a pan with a bit of oil until they're crispy and golden brown, or they can be baked in the oven at around 400°F (200°C) for about 15-20 minutes, or until crispy.
The above is a simple guide so always follow the instructions on your rice paper packaging as to how to prepare the rice paper for filling and any instructions on cooking, etc.
Yes and no, it depends on where you are in the world. In the United States, "cornstarch" refers to a fine white powder made from the endosperm of the corn kernel that's used as a thickening agent in cooking.
In the UK, Australia, and some other countries, the term "cornflour" is often used to refer to the same powder so in these places, cornflour and cornstarch are essentially the same thing.
However, in some parts of the world, "cornflour" might refer to a more finely ground cornmeal, which is not the same thing as cornstarch. Cornmeal is ground from the whole corn kernel, not just the endosperm, and it's more similar to flour in texture.
So, when you see "cornflour" in a recipe, if it's a recipe from the UK or Australia, it's likely referring to what would be called "cornstarch" in the US. If you're unsure, you can usually tell by the recipe such as if it's being used as a thickener in a sauce or gravy, or used to thicken a sweet pudding or pie filling, it's likely to be cornstarch.
Thin slices of spring onion or scallions are a delicious fresh garnish which compliments the savoury thick and glossy sweet and sour sauce.
More easy vegan Chinese inspired recipes
My family loves take-out-at-home or fake-away recipes so our vegan collection of Asian inspired recipes are forever growing. For an extra quick dinner this Stir-Fry Soup can be ready in under 30 minutes, and as a tasty lunch or starter we really like this Vegan Chinese 'chicken' And Sweetcorn Soup. My kids ultimate favourite is this Vegan Mongolian 'beef' and Broccoli as the broccoli's taste and texture is just so good, and finally for a tasty dinner we all love this Vegan Old-School Chicken Curry which is adapted from the old-style curries that were available in British Chinese take-aways during the 70s and 80s.
***please note: for US measurements click the 'US customary button' within the recipe and the measurements will switch to tablespoons, cups, and ounces.***
Easy Vegan Sweet and Sour Tofu [with stir-fry vegetables and black beans]
- Large wok or similar with lid
Stir-fry tofu, vegetables and black beans:
- 2 tablespoon coconut oil
- 280 grams firm tofu [sliced into large cubes or bite-sized pieces, use more tofu if preferred, our package of tofu was this weight]
- 1 large onion [sliced into thin slices]
- 1 large carrot [sliced into long batons]
- 2 ribs celery [sliced into long batons]
- 100 grams green beans [sliced into 2-3 pieces] we used dwarf beans but any green bean varieties are fine
- 4 garlic cloves [sliced thin]
- 1 medium green bell pepper [sliced into long pieces]
- 1 medium red bell pepper [sliced into long pieces]
- 120 grams baby sweetcorn [halved]
- 1 can black beans [drained and rinsed to remove the black liquid] [about 240 grams of cooked beans]
- 3 tablespoon cornflour [cornstarch]
Sweet and sour sauce:
- 200 millilitres pineapple juice [or syrup], from a can of pineapple pieces, chunks or rings
- 150 millilitres vegetable broth [use a vegan chicken flavoured broth if available]
- 4 tablespoon white wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoon soy sauce [or tamari if gluten-free required]
- 3 tablespoon tomato ketchup
- 4 tablespoon granulated sugar [alternatively, we have also used coconut sugar and it works fine so if preferred go with your usual sugar]
- 1 teaspoon Chinese 5 spice powder [add a little extra if liked]
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 4 spring onions [green onions / scallions] sprinkle over finished dish
- pineapple pieces from the canned pineapple use as a garnish or stir through the finished dish, or omit if preferred
- fresh lemon juice add a squeeze of lemon juice to the finished dish or individual portions
- Melt the coconut oil in a large Wok, non-stick skillet or similar over a medium-high heat.2 tablespoon coconut oil
- Add the cubed tofu and cook for 10 minutes, flipping the tofu over after a few minutes so that each side gets a chance to brown.280 grams firm tofu
- Push the tofu over to the side of the Wok and tip in the onions and cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently.1 large onion
- Next add the carrot and celery batons and cook for 3 minutes, stirring frequently.1 large carrot, 2 ribs celery
- Next add the green beans and cook for 2 minutes, stirring a few times.100 grams green beans
- Push the vegetables a little so that the bottom of the Wok is exposed and chuck in the garlic slices. Add the bell pepper slices over the garlic, and give everything a good stir including the tofu pieces.1 medium red bell pepper, 4 garlic cloves, 1 medium green bell pepper
- Pop a lid over the vegetables and cook for 5 minutes, stirring a few times. [The exact cooking times depend on the size the vegetables have been cut so if they are really small or thin this step may not be required as the veggies may be cooked enough for your liking.]
Prepare the sweet and sour sauce
- Meanwhile prepare the sweet and sour sauce.
- Add all the sauce ingredients to a bowl and stir well [except the cornflour].200 millilitres pineapple juice, 150 millilitres vegetable broth, 4 tablespoon white wine vinegar, 2 tablespoon soy sauce, 3 tablespoon tomato ketchup, 4 tablespoon granulated sugar, 1 teaspoon Chinese 5 spice powder, ½ teaspoon salt
Finish the sweet and sauce tofu
- Stir the cornflour through the vegetables and tofu until it starts to almost disappear onto the veggies and tofu.3 tablespoon cornflour
- Add the black beans and baby corn cobs.120 grams baby sweetcorn, 1 can black beans
- Pour the sauce into the Wok and bring to a simmer. Cook for 3-4 minutes until the sauce is nice and thick.
- Season the sweet and sour tofu with salt and pepper to taste if necessary. If liked stir the canned pineapple through the veggies and tofu, or scatter the chunks over the dish, but if pineapple is not liked simply use the pineapple for a different recipe.pineapple pieces from the canned pineapple
- Sprinkle the chopped spring onions [scallions] over each portion. A squeeze of fresh lemon juice is a nice addition, as is an accompaniment of noodles or rice.4 spring onions, fresh lemon juice
- Nutritional data if for guidance only and is not an exact calculation as ingredients can vary.
- If you need to press your tofu before using then have a look at our Sweet and Sticky Tofu Satay recipe notes and FAQ section for an easy guide to pressing tofu. Although many tofu brands do not require pressing, including the tofu we used for this recipe - Tofoo Co. Naked.
- Instead of preparing individual vegetables if time is short use a few packages of shop-bought stir-fry vegetables either fresh or frozen, but do adjust the cooking time as they may cook quicker.
- The exact cooking times for the vegetables may vary depends on the how thick the vegetables have been cut so adjust the cooking times, a few minutes more or a few minutes less, depending on your preferred vegetable thickness or thinness.
- The pineapple pieces that are drained out of the can are an optional addition, and they can be either stirred through the dish at the end or scattered over as a garnish. Likewise the canned orange or mandarin pieces if used instead.
- The pineapple we used was Growers Harvest in a Light Syrup 425 grams [Tesco supermarkets, UK].
Prepared our delicious easy vegan Sweet and Sour Tofu? Do let us know how you got on with the recipe as we love hearing from you. Thanks so much, Jacq x