It is tempting to dismiss sweet-and-sour pork as gloppy, Americanized Chinese food. And, let’s face it, it often is. But millions of Cantonese would convincingly argue there is much more—and much better—to be had.

Called gu lao rou, the melange of crispy deep-fried pork covered in a sweet-tart glaze is exceedingly popular around Hong Kong. Granted, it is sweet, and it does incorporate Western ingredients like pineapple, fresh chilies and bell pepper, but it has real roots in lighter, brighter dishes in southern China. Indeed, its name roughly translates to “meat with a long history.”

For centuries, sweet-and-sour sauce was a simple condiment of sugar and rice vinegar, sometimes laced with sour kiwi and fire-engine-red hawthorn berries. Inter­national trade through Hong Kong introduced new ingredients to Cantonese cooks, and by the early 1900s, the recipe had evolved to include South American pineapple and ketchup—yes, American tomato ketchup.

The combination of sweet and sour appealed to Western merchants as well as locals, and that’s the dish that spread around the world. Except in American Chinese restaurants, where cooks added more sugar and thick batter, so the dish veered heavy, greasy and cloying. More than a few bites, and it can be overwhelming.

Looking to harness that enticing sweet-tart profile without the saccharine stickiness, we were drawn to the dish’s origins. A lighter, earlier variation happens to be preserved in Taiwan, where cooks skip the deep-frying—and the ketchup—to better highlight the other ingredients.

Thinly sliced pork shoulder is marinated in soy sauce, a bit of sugar and cornstarch. The starch creates a protective layer against the high heat of a stir-fry, helping to keep the pork tender by preventing it from overcooking. After briefly stir-frying the meat with ginger, in go red bell pepper, chilies, scallions and pineapple with roughly equal parts rice vinegar, sugar and more soy sauce.

Some of the cornstarch sloughs off the meat during stir-frying. But that’s a good thing, as it lends body to a sauce that lightly coats the ingredients. The result is a balanced, savory dish with crisp bell pepper, juicy-tart pineapple and tender pork.

For our even tangier take, we dial down the sugar and increase the rice vinegar to 1⁄3 cup, stirring it into the sauce near the end of cooking to preserve its brightness. Using fresh pineapple, rather than dull-tasting canned fruit, contributes more tropical flavor with its own acidity.

A hefty chunk of ginger is cut into matchsticks for bigger pops of piquant flavor, while thinly sliced serrano chilies add spice to further balance the sweetness. It makes for a savory-sweet dish, a little tart and well-balanced to the last bite. A delicious return to the dish’s roots.