Whenever we visit New York City, we always make it a point to stop for lunch at Xi’an Famous Foods. It’s one of our favorite NYC restaurants – fast, casual, delicious, and fun! Chef Gabby Denton originally introduced us to it and their (truly famous) noodles, sweet and sour pineapple chicken, soup, and tiger salad do not disappoint.
Since moving to Switzerland, we’ve been craving good Chinese food, so we were so excited to find out that XFF finally released a cookbook. We’ve been cooking our way through the book and the sweet and sour Pineapple Chicken and Spicy Cumin Lamb were the first dishes we recreated at home. Delicious and super simple, you really only need a few ingredients for most of the recipes. The sweet and sour sauce is the easiest – all you need on hand is ketchup, sugar, vinegar, and wine.
For the more advanced dishes, we’d suggest making a run to a good Asian grocery and stocking up on some essentials, then you’ll have everything on hand for an authentic XFF Chinese night whenever you’re in the mood.
Our small community of Chinese expats in Michigan was a jumble of families from all over China, so our potlucks were a melting pot of American food, Chinese American food, and traditional Chinese cooking. This dish is a result of those potlucks, a perfect example of how immigration and location can transform cultural flavors. Xi’an might not have a lot of sweet-and-salty combinations, but those flavors developed in other regions in southern China. Add in the influence of Chinese American takeout, and you get this: crispy bits of chicken in your classic sweet-and-sour sauce, with pineapple and ketchup (yes, ketchup). It’s exactly what you would think of when you think Chinese American food, but potentially better, fresher, from the take- out joint you wish were near your apartment.
One mother brought pineapple chicken to a Chinese New Year potluck, and my mom snagged the recipe to see if she could make her own version. Nothing about this dish was familiar to me back then, but when I have it now, it reminds me of a time when my family and I were trying so hard to blend into a new place, cooking with new ingredients. We ended up with flavors and combinations that on the surface looked strange but at their core struck something that felt like home (and tasted pretty damn good, too).
Xian Famous Foods cookbook is available here.
- 5 ounces (140 g) boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into 11⁄2-inch (4 cm) pieces
- ½ teaspoon salt, divided
- ¾ teaspoon Shaoxing cooking wine, divided
- ⅓ cup plus 1⁄4 teaspoon (48 g) cornstarch, divided
- ¼ teaspoon plus 2 cups, (480 ml plus 1 tablespoon) vegetable oil, divided
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 teaspoons white vinegar
- ⅓ cup (75 ml) ketchup
- 2 inch (5 cm) piece fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced into matchsticks
- 1 garlic clove, peeled and sliced
- ½ green bell pepper, cut into 3⁄4-inch (2 cm) squares
- ½ red bell pepper, cut into 3⁄4-inch (2 cm) squares
- 3½ ounces (100 g) canned pineapple cubes, (if using a fresh pineapple, carefully remove and cut the flesh into 3⁄4-inch/2 cm cubes; reserve the shell)
- 1 green onion, white part only, cut into slivers
- Tenderize the chicken by lightly beating it with the blunt edge of a knife. This improves the texture and lets the seasoning sink into the meat.
- In a medium bowl, add the chicken along with 1⁄4 teaspoon of the salt and 1⁄4 teaspoon of the cooking wine. Mix well to combine.
- In a small bowl, make a slurry by combining 1⁄3 cup (45 g) of the cornstarch with 3 tablespoons water to form a paste. Mix in one direction to combine. Add 1⁄4 teaspoon of the vegetable oil and stir to combine.
- In another small bowl, add the remaining 1⁄4 teaspoon salt and the remaining 1⁄2 teaspoon cooking wine, along with the sugar, white vinegar, and ketchup. Mix evenly in one direction. This is your sweet-and-sour sauce.
- In a large skillet, pour in the 2 cups (480 ml) vegetable oil and set over medium heat. Make sure the slurry is not settled by stirring it in one direction. Right before the oil reaches the smoking point (about 400°F/200°C, or when you see it start to shimmer), dip each piece of chicken in the cornstarch slurry and then carefully place into the oil. Make sure not to overcrowd the pan, working in batches if necessary.
- Cook the chicken on one side for 1½ minutes, flip over, and cook for another 1½ minutes. Remove to a plate. Repeat until all of the chicken pieces are fried.
- In a small bowl, add the remaining 1⁄4 teaspoon cornstarch along with a splash of water to make a second slurry. Stir in one direction to combine.
- Heat the oil once more over medium heat until just below smoking point (about 400°F/200°C, or when you see it start to shimmer). Return the chicken to the pan, working in batches if necessary, and cook until golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes.
- In another large skillet that can hold all of the ingredients comfortably, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon vegetable oil over high heat. Add the ginger and garlic and cook for 1 minute, or until tender. Add the sweet-and-sour sauce and cook until slightly thickened, about 2 minutes.
- Add the bell peppers and cook for about 2 minutes. Add the pineapple, green onion, and fried chicken and stir-fry for 1 minute. Add the second slurry you made and stir to combine. Cook for an additional 1 minute, then serve.