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What is Sweet and Sour Chicken?

So it was with great relief that I learned how to make Sheila Chang’s sweet and sour chicken, which, as you can tell from the headline, is a dish you’ll want to try.

Chang is the petite, no-nonsense, 72-year-old MIL of the Food section’s Wine columnist, Dave McIntyre. Born in southern Taiwan, she came to the States in 1970. (Her hometown of Kangshan is famed for its hot bean sauce; you’ll want to get your hands on a jar, confirm the entire McIntyre-Chang clan, and use it in lots of dishes.) Three years later, she was working as a prep cook at Ridgewells, where she spent the next 23 years in the catering kitchen. After that, she worked in the catering departments at Sutton Place Gourmet and Whole Foods. Now retired, she grows lots of peppers in her Silver Spring garden and puts on one heck of a Chinese New Year dinner, which I was fortunate to enjoy in 2011.

Distinction No. 1: The marinated chicken is coated with fresh bread crumbs instead of a gloppy batter. (Bonnie S. Benwick/The Washington Post)

Her sweet and sour chicken was one of many courses at that holiday feast. It was not the stuff that adults are embarrassed to order at their neighborhood Chinese restaurant. A taste of the sauce made me giddy: It was piquant more than sweet. Definitely not cloying. And the chicken! No air pockets or outsize larvae shapes created by a heavy, battered coating. The meat had its own flavor.

Our plans finally came to fruition on a recent Sunday afternoon at the McIntyre house.

Chang already had marinated the chicken. She showed me uniformly sized pieces in a bowl she extracted from the fridge. Bits of fat were visible. “I leave some on, ” she shrugged, for flavor. While the frying oil heated in a deep nonstick saute pan, she professionally dispatched garlic, ginger, red bell pepper and canned pineapple slices. She prefers the latter over fresh fruit, because of the canned juices.

The chopping of Martin Yan has nothing on this woman: “I like working fast, ” she says. Things could have gone considerably faster, I suspect, had I not asked her to measure along the way.

The chicken’s fried quickly in canola oil. (Bonnie S. Benwick/The Washington Post)

She fried about a third of the chicken at a time, adding the initial pieces without checking the temperature of the oil. A seasoned hand just knows when it’s ready. The pieces bobbed in a low geyser of furious bubbles for a bit; she then scooped them onto paper towels layered in a nearby colander.

Other dishes Sheila Chang made that day: Stir-Fried Pork, above, and a vegetable stir-fry, below. (Bonnie S. Benwick/The Washington Post)

When I made the sweet and sour chicken on my own at home, it tasted like hers.

Are you silently chanting “Recipe, please!”? Here you go.

4 to 6 servings

Serve with steamed rice.

MAKE AHEAD: The chicken needs to marinate overnight in the refrigerator. The dish tastes best the same day it is made.

For the marinade and chicken

2 ½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite-size pieces

1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce

2 thin slices unpeeled ginger root

2 tablespoons dry white wine

2 ¼ cups fresh bread crumbs (preferably from stale French bread)

4 cups canola oil, for frying

For the sauce

2 tablespoons canola oil

2 medium cloves garlic, smashed and minced (scant tablespoon)

2 thin slices peeled ginger root, cut into matchsticks then finely chopped (1 tablespoon)

½ medium onion, cut into 1-inch dice (about ½ cup)

½ large red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and cut into 1-inch pieces

2 cups water, plus more for the cornstarch slurry

Half of a 20-ounce can of pineapple slices, cut into bite-size pieces, plus half the juice from the can

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