Sunday, January 31, 2010

Tony Luke's Roast Pork Italian

Everyone's got a different idea of what constitutes a hangover cure. Some say it should directly target your nausea and sooth your digestive tract, while others prefer one that presents an anguish overshadowing the damage done by the previous night's alcohol consumption. There's always the 'grease' argument as well: the greasier the food, the faster the recovery. After a reasonably long Saturday night drinking and playing records at the Medusa Lounge, I decided to test out a standby I'd always witnessed in the hungover hands of my sinning buddies. John's Roast Pork on Snyder Ave is apparently closed on the weekends, so I headed to Tony Luke's with Eric, John, and John, who were also seeking a cure-all tonic.

We decided to pick up our sandwiches and eat them back at the place, because no one wants to eat in the space within those metal walls fitted to be a seating area. I ordered the Roast Pork Italian (with broccoli rabe and provolone), a side order of mushrooms, a root beer, and a fistful of hot peppers from the condiment table. As is nearly always the case in South Philly, the lady taking my order asked for my name and balked at my reply, asking me to repeat it once before requesting my initials. Not a lot of Abdullah's down at Tony Luke's.

Back at Eric and John's, the guys primed me for this adventure, speaking of this sandwich's ultimate deliciousness. I unwrapped my parcel and lifted out the bread vessel stuffed with thin slices of dripping wet, grayish pink roast pork, the greens and cheese buried in the hinge of the roll. Its scent was unusual to me, slightly putrid. As I timidly took my first bite, my friends rounded out to the second halves of their sandwiches. The textures were similar to roast beef, only less stringy. The flavor of sharp provolone somewhat masked the disagreeable flavor of the meat to a point, and the taste of the greens faded into the back ground, adding only color to the mix. In an attempt to neutralize the state of my taste buds, I ate a forkful of my side order, soggy slices of mushrooms from a can. Sheer disappointment with those led me to the always reliable hot peppers. I took a few more bites of the sandwich and left the challenge half completed.

That indescribably element, the sourness that first revealed itself beneath the curing in my initial adventure with prosciutto, lay unmasked in roast pork. The smell and the taste were enough to stop me in my tracks. I attribute my aversion to my virgin palate and not to the quality of Tony Luke's hoagies, of which the cold roast beef has always been a favorite of mine.

Later that day, as Joe and I decided where to grab a bite for dinner, I told him I was "all porked out" for the day, eliciting a snide remark. I realized then how much the roast pork had turned me off. The unfamiliar taste wasn't enjoyable enough for me to forget what I was eating. Watching those around me devouring it reminded me of the times that pork didn't look so good to me. The roast pork sandwich wasn't on top of my list because it never appealed to me. I guess I have to expect that not every adventure in pork will be a positive one.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Percy Street BBQ Ribs and Pork Belly

I hadn't seen BJ in ages, so it was a wonderful surprise when he sent me a link to an article he wrote about this very blog on Phoodie. It sparked plans for a reunion over pork which culminated yesterday at Percy Street BBQ, a relatively new place on South Street.

Modern barbecue joints look one of two ways with few in betweens: the white tiled, no tables stab and grab, partially functioning fluorescent light signs in the window, kitchen activity visible from the counter, and a simplified menu of standards served on styrofoam (I'm thinking of Accu in West Philly). Then there's the modern gourmet option often found in a trendy neighborhood, dimly lit with traditional items served on plates, meat complementing craft beers on tap (my first of this sort was Brookyln's Smoke Joint).

Percy Street fits cleanly into the latter category. We met up with my friend Justin on the way, who had experienced this barbecue three times since it opened and vouched for its excellence. Once we arrived, we were joined by BJ's friend Jason, who seconded the lauding. I was starving and in deep anticipation.

I went with the option of two meats and two sides, forgoing the temptation of sausage and going with pork belly and ribs, along with a side of collard greens and German potato salad with bacon (!). To accompany my meal, I chose a mug of Brooklyn Brown Ale, one of my favorite standards despite my disdain for the burnt bitterness of the same brewery's lager. The food arrived in a presentation unbefitting the ambiance; each meat serving bagged with slices of supermarket pickle and raw onion, the sides in small round bowls, arranged on a metal cafeteria tray. Needless to say, the presentation made for a crappy picture. As I fumbled to photograph my meal in the dim light, a whiff of grill seasoning caught my nostrils. I put away my camera and went straight for bag number one, demarcated with a round pink sticker depicting a silhouetted pig. I reached in and pulled out one of the finest pieces of pork I have thus far consumed.

Percy Street's pork belly is thick cut and cooked to the point of nearly falling apart into its layer of meat, fat, and a substance I can only describe as meatfat. While it was still warm, I effortlessy bit off a chunk of this wide bit of belly and marveled as the fat disintegrated on my tongue, the meaty portion's texture lingering just slightly longer before going the way of its counterpart. The salty seasoning was encased perfectly in every bite of this stuff. The pork belly stole the show. I finished the first slice and noted that I shouldn't, under any circumstance, neglect the ribs.

Unwrapping the second parcel yielded slight disappointment at the lonely pair wrapped inside. Just two ribs didn't seem like enough, even in a meal containing other portions. However, the ribs, grilled and done wet, were excellent. They were cooked not quite to the point of meat falling from bone, but as close to it as you can get with the meat remaining in tact. I'll note here that the pinkness of barbecue spare ribs really bothers me. Maybe it's because I'm used to the rare appearance of beef that still pink pork looks under cooked to me.

I was initially excited about my sides, particularly the German potato salad. I found that I'm not a huge fan of vinegar and potatoes. Thus far, I've honed my expertise enough to discern that it was infused with real bacon and not some sort of seasoning farce, but somehow it wasn't doing the trick for me. Both the potatoes and greens were just sides to me, with no memorable traits.

Ever feel guilty because you feel like you should feel guilty about something that you don't? That's how that pork belly did me. I enjoyed it so much that I managed to momentarily shed the guilt that works so hard to engulf me while I'm eating pork.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Naruto Tan Tan Ramen

Everyone who knows me knows that my relationship with noodles borders on obsession. Sen mee nam, or kuay teow (street stall beef noodle soup) was my favorite food growing up, and being Pakistani and living in Thailand, I had a lot of foods competing for my favor. When I left Thailand and came to the US, so much changed that I didn't even notice the lack of noodles in my life. When things finally settled down, my mom jogged my memory with her sen mee nam recipe, one that may have diverged slightly from the original, yet remains my favorite.

But then I went away to college. I found myself in Philadelphia, two hours away from mama and the aromas of her kitchen. My appreciation for her cooking grew by leaps and bounds, a familiar story to anyone who went away for school and has even a halfway decent cook for a mother.

How oblivious I was to the neighborhoods in Philly in those early days. It wasn't until my third year of college that Joey introduced me to the phở restaurants of Washington Ave. These simple restaurants, with vast fields of uniform tables and exclusively male waiters in white polos replaced the void that leaving Thailand had created in me.

When I went to Japan in 2005, I was once again bound to leave my beloved noodles behind, but this time for a destination that I knew would reveal wondrous noodles of its own. When I asked my new Japanese schoolmates where I could get a bowl of noodles in the neighborhood of our school, the standard reaction was a shrinking away, nearly physically dissolving into a sheepish show of shyness and formality. Truly Japanese style. It took an American to give me the shit straight. We dropped into a ramen joint and got down.

Now, I wasn't eating pork at this point in my life, at least not willingly. It was only when I was finished with my meal that I was told that this was pork pork pork; pork broth, pork katsu, shredded up pork reaching every corner of every bowl in the place. I laughed if off. Not my fault if I didn't know. I certainly wasn't laughing when my stomach reacted to the foreign substance that suddenly appeared in its main chamber by sending it through remaining ducts of my digestive system at alarming speeds. Despite the unpleasant feeling, this happening led me to discover the very helpful robotic toilets of Japan that didn't only give me comfort, but various options as well. I never knew such a deuce was possible. I had to stop myself from thanking it, shortly before I reconsidered and said thanks anyway.

And that was my impression of Japanese ramen. I found a vegetarian udon place in my neighborhood and never touched the yellow noodles again. It was only a couple of weeks ago that my brother Ahmad, on his own journey of pork/self discovery, recommended a ramen place in his neighborhood. Being a different man than my 2005 self, I agreed to the adventure.

We went to Naruto Ramen at 90th St. and 3rd Ave. in Manhattan. The place was modeled after the typical places found in Tokyo, a common sight in New York. I got the tan tan ramen, which comes in a spicy, translucent brown pork broth topped with ground pork that ends up dispersed through the entire bowl. It was very flavorful and I didn't need to employ my habit of saucing up my bowl with the available condiments. The soup was thicker than the light broth of my favorite Southeast Asian noodle soups, resembling curry noodles (something like Vietnamese bun bo hue or Thai khao soy). The pork simply became part of each bite without much of a meaty flavor or texture. Ground, it chewed somewhere between ground chicken and ground beef. There was a peanut flavor happening as well, yet no physical evidence of peanuts. The yellow egg noodles have a charm of their own, with a thicker, slightly chewier texture than rice noodles. Their curliness made them a little easier to stack onto the spoon.

Here's where I'll note that I eat noodles like a Thai: using the chopsticks to place noodles, meat, vegetable, and any other component onto the spoon, then dipping the spoon and eating. This way, each spoonful is a microchasm of your noodle bowl. I recommend it over the shoveling noodles followed by drinking from the bowl method.

Overall, it was a satisfactory meal and I wasn't given a colon blow like a was last time (must've been an isolated incident). I was glad, as it allowed me to watch DJ Krush totally kill it on the ones and twos in peace and tranquility. I'm still not sold on ramen, so I'll have to keep trying. I'm told I'll never find a good bowl of ramen in Philly, so it will have to be New York or elsewhere. As always, if anyone can make a recommendation, I would greatly appreciate it.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Superstitious, I am not. However, I am easily scared.

I've been sick for a few days, and today it reached a point that prevents me from truly sensing pork, making it pointless to attempt a new adventure until I kick this phlegmy, congested unpleasantness.

It's a shame, because I'm on my way to New York, where I was hoping to try something new (perhaps a pork bun) before being serenaded by the madrigals of folk composer DJ Krush. With my bulging sinuses and foggy head, I hit the street, en route to the many modes of transit that get me to my brother's apartment. I was a block from my house when I noticed something flat, wet, pink, and streaked with white. I eased my rush and mouthed the word as the visual registered: 'bacon'. I looked ahead to find a four square foot patch of sidewalk strewn with the stuff. I stood there, surrounded. As if the camera was rising above me to capture the whole shot, I slowly raised my arms toward the heavens and closed my eyes. Like Dutch summoning the Predator to battle, I screamed my enemy's name.


OK, I didn't do that last arm-raising, screaming thing, but you have to admit, that's some kind of omen. I'm not one to challenge the universe.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Jen and Tivoni's Pork Loin

There's encouragement all around me. People have started saying things like "I'm so excited for you", recommendations abound within the friendly feedback. I'm slowly traversing the long long list of every preparation of every part of this very edible animal, and I have many guides. Yesterday, my reformed appetite broke a new barrier: I was cooked for.

Jen is a friend of mine from high school, and her and her husband Tivoni live near my neighborhood in South Philly. In the midst of preparing a pork loin for dinner, they thought of their hungry friend Abdullah and invited him over to try something new. I was touched.

Tivoni has his method on lock. Though I feel I will never have a full understanding of the process, much as I never got my head around basic chemistry, I got the idea that there was a some technical prowess required in conjunction with a whole lot of love. He had slathered the long, wide tenderloin with a relish of roasted garlic, peppercorns, and pickled mustard greens. This last choice had been thrown into the mix on a whim during a visit to the Hung Vuong market on Washington Ave. It was an unusual choice for a grilling marinade component, and it piqued my interest. I remember eating these pickled greens on their own as a child in Thailand, a mini-adventure in my lifelong quest for pickles of all kinds. They tend to be a little gross unless used as a garnish, and I was curious to see how they would interact with the meat.

Once caked with this chunky mix, he had rolled it up, seared the exposed sides, and slow broiled it to perfection. This allowed all the juices to remain within the mass, yielding moist and tender meat. He carved it into thin slices that fell apart into thick strands covered in the seasoning mixture.

I'm not certain if it was the cut or the way that it was cooked, but the texture reminded me of a very moist broiled chicken. The slightly spongy bits of meat had absorbed the seasoning well, and each one unfolded like three acts of a play. This, I believe, was the real feat of this pork loin. The flavor of garlic was immediately noticeable and though it was well done, it was nothing new. That's where the bits of mustard green kicked in, the cooking process having released their tartness into the meat while allowing the little crunchy bits to retain their texture. Finally, the pepper, the sleeper. Though it was present in the first bite, it's magnitude culminated after I'd cleaned my plate. I hardly noticed the building heat as I was eating, but at the meal's conclusion, I was left with the pleasant warmth only brought by freshly broken pepper. A clean finish.

Because I was so hungry when I arrived at their house, and also due to the somewhat chicken-like texture of the loin, I was able to trick my brain into allowing me to scarf it down without the image of the animal looming in my mind. It was only once we had finished eating that I gave myself the opportunity to reflect on what I had eaten. Through no fault of this delectable preparation, I felt a little ill. It was the first time I had consumed that much pork without a thought, and it caught up to me.

It had occurred to me prior to last night that each pork dish I consume is still very much an experiment. If I'm hungry, I don't really go for pork. If I'm grabbing a hoagie for lunch while working, I still go for roast beef. If I'm driving a long distance and stop to grab a burger, I don't get bacon on it. Every time I eat pork, I'm thinking about it, and a human being can't be constantly thinking about what it's eating. It tells me that perhaps when this project, this series of experiments, is over, I may very well go right back to my old restricted diet. I may even revert to a slightly stricter diet. While it may seem, to the vast majority of American eaters, an unnecessary pain in the ass hindering daily life, it's what I'm used to. I miss that unawareness, being indifferent as to what's churning around in my insides. However, right now I'm on a mission. The adventures need to continue and, by golly, they will.

Check out Jen and Tivoni's food blog for more of their intrepid concoctions.

Friday, January 22, 2010


Thank you, thank you for the props.

Thrillist "For a scrumptious blog from a guy who realized he could have his pig and eat it too, check Adventures in Pork."

Phoodie "It's a perfect food blog concept: Saeed’s almost poetic prose and fresh perspective on swine merge like ribs and BBQ sauce that makes for a witty feast for the eyeballs."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Wild Boar

When we were kids, my brother and I loved Asterix. We had volumes of English translations of the French comic and we'd borrow videos of the cartoon from our Belgian neighbors. At the time, we didn't decipher the overt French nationalist tendencies of the storylines (I learned years later that the Gauls were actually defeated pretty badly at the hands of the Romans, thank you HBO's Rome). At the time, we were more concerned with the druid Getafix's magic potion and even more with wild boar. Aside from beating up Roman soldiers and chugging potion, Asterix and his obese partner Obelix had an obsession with hunting, grilling, and consuming entire carcasses of the wild pigs that traversed the plains surrounding their paradisiacal settlement. The boar looked delicious. It looked delicious even after we were repeatedly told that it was Haram.

I never thought I'd get to try it. The one pork food that looked tempting to me, and it was entirely imaginary; a musing of cartoonist Rene Goscinny. It would be a solid 12 years before I would sample this Gaulish delicacy.

For this adventure, I revisit my trip to Italy and the furthest excursion I took from the city of Rome. My girlfriend was visiting and I had planned a trip to Umbria, a region known for its white wine. Our destination was Pulicaro, a farm house offering 'agriturismo', the experience of staying at a farm, eating and drinking only what the land yielded, which included wine, olive oil, produce, and meat. We were picked up from the train station in Orvieto and driven through the rolling landscape, finally arriving at our destination. Pulicaro is a sprawling stone building that was constructed in the 1500s. Its gray, squarish layout sits on a hill amidst olive tree orchards. The owners and operators are Marco and Chiara, an Italian couple in their late 20s who left the city to live life slow and entertain visitors at their farmhouse.

After some genuine Italian relaxation, we entered the lower chamber of the farmhouse for dinner with Marco, Chiara, and the rest of the staff, a rag tag crew of jovial youngsters. We began with homemade pasta prepared with cheese, parmesan, if not something similar. The main part of the meal consisted of some amazing bitter greens, potatoes, and, for the first time ever, dry rubbed wild boar. Marco said he's shot the beast himself, sending me spiraling into memories of Asterix. Chiara told us she had seasoned it with rosemary and baked it in the farmhouse's stone oven, also five centuries old.

The meat was dark and gamy, a little like venison. The chewiness had been somewhat neutralized by the cooking process. The cubes of meat were encased in slightly charred seasoning, the rosemary and what was perhaps rock salt. There was also a peppery element which was stronger than what I had had in the majority of Italian cuisine in my Roman experience. There was certainly a country-ness about the whole meal. Though produce in Rome is far superior to anything found in an American supermarket, these veggies were a cut above even that.

It wasn't the spit-roasted horned beast I remembered from my childhood comic books, but wild boar was the tastiest pork I'd had until that point. It's likely that this is the very species of swine that made Islamic travelers ill, leading to the animal's banning in the Muslim faith. I'll admit that at the time I had a slight fear of indigestion, assuming that if god was going to reprimand me, this would be the occasion. On the contrary, I felt fine. It was one of the most satisfying meals I'd ever consumed, and it fulfilled a long time dream.

In seeking images of Asterix and a wild boar for this post, I came across a wild boar ramen. Now that sounds freaking amazing to me. If anyone knows of a place where I can get a good bowl of wild boar ramen, please let me know.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Pork Belly Meat Stick

My love affair with yakitori began five years ago in Tokyo. Never had I had such an appropriate beer snack to accompany light beer drinking (that 'light' refers to the style of cheap beer and not the quantity consumed). At a tabehodai (all you can eat), one might consume enough animal organs to construct a livestock militia. Izakaya (defined as 'Japanese eating and drinking establishment') was the thing I missed most upon my return, which is why I was delighted to see one open up right in Philly's Chinatown. My delight was peaked when I heard about their Tuesday $2 pint, $1 yakitori deal. Since the discovery of Yakitori Boy, my friends and I spanked this special to our benefit time and time again, and last Tuesday was no different.

It was a reunion of sorts, old college friends now dispersed across the country (half of us in the varied counties of South Philadelphia) meeting for food, drinks, and moderate debauchery. The term 'yakitori' refers specifically to grilled chicken parts, including gizzards,liver, and my personal favorite, hearts. Yakitori Boy has expanded it to include a couple of vegetable options, as well as the new object of my interest: pig. Pork belly, to be exact. Bacon, my old nemesis, in its purest form. Joey endorsed it heartily and it became the most ordered meatstick of the night. Round after round, we kept reducing the variety of our orders until it was essentially beer, pork belly, beer, pork belly, and the occasional quail egg wrapped in bacon.

The pork belly was seasoned with the same salty mixture that coated the chicken parts, but the pork's fattiness held it better. Lately, I've been convinced that the reason I don't love the bacon I've had is that it is too thin cut. The image of a half inch thick piece of bacon sizzling on a Korean BBQ griddle remains the goal in my mind, and this pork belly on a stick came mighty close to my aspirations. Pork fat doesn't have the same sinewy chewiness in the fatty portions of beef cuts. Rather, pork fat seems to melt and become a buttery concoction. In this case, there was not as much chewing as there was feeling the fat dissolve in your mouth. Simply seasoned, and with an easy texture, pork belly meatsticks won me over quickly.

This stuff is the kind of pork I can handle without too much guilty backlash, perhaps because I simultaneously drink copious amounts of beer, the forbidden fun. Of course, having old friends that have known of my dietary restriction for close to a decade watching me eat pork makes it somewhat of a spectacle. It's like having my 20 year old self staring at me and silently judging me, staring at the heathen he will soon become.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Shredded Pork Vietnamese Hoagie

Coexisting with Philly's Italian Market is a fully authentic microchasm or Vietnam. Along Washington Ave east of Broad Street, there are countless signs written in the unmistakable accented, all caps Roman letters. Since I came to this city eight years ago, three of those letters have been a stand by: Phở.

Since the adventures began, I haven't allowed them to enter my safehouse, the enduring legacy of noodle spots. Phở is a cure-all, and I'd rather not mingle it with a meat about which my body is still unsure. However, yesterday I came up with a side project to move things along.

French colonialism left Vietnamese cuisine with a staple far better utilized with ingredients from Southeast Asia. Bánh mì, or as it's known in Philly, the Vietnamese hoagie, is a baguette filled with shredded meat and various salad ingredients.

My friend Joey and I decided to check out a little joint called Cafe Huong Lan. Located on eighth street just above Washington, this and the other miniature restaurants on this tiny strip sat right at the end of a block on which I lived for nearly a year and I'd never ventured in for my commitment to the noodle places in the 12th street plaza. Huong Lan had it all; Phở, bánh mì, and a highly abrasive Vietnamese woman telling us about the different sandwiches and simultaneously yelling at us for not already knowing. I went with the shredded pork hoagie.

In addition to the meat, my hoagie was filled with cilantro, hot peppers (which I had asked be left big deal), unusually thick pickled radish and carrots, and a yellowish mayo/mustard. There was an incomparable greasiness to the meat. That and the slightly dark coloring of the meats, along with the bits of crispy skin made it more like duck meat than anything else. It was slightly sweet and the pork went with the other ingredients far better than any chicken hoagie I'd had. On a sidenote, it seems that chicken and beef get worse tasting as you go down in grade, whereas pork just gets better.

It did taste and look enough like duck that I could have tricked myself and avoided the psychological aspect of the experience, but I realized that that is a feat impossible. Since I began writing this blog, I find myself teasing my own brain while I'm eating, trying to get a reaction out of myself. With this in mind, I charged through the sandwich. While it wasn't the best Vietnamese hoagie I've ever had, it demonstrated to me the reason why 10 out of 12 menu options of these sandwiches contain pork. The baguette and veggie housing was built for pork. One down, nine to go.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Sarcone's Old Fashioned Italian Hoagie

I am certainly one for cold hoagies. While the heroes and subs of other American cities may throw their hats into the ring, nothing beats the sandwich known by another name in Philadelphia. You can get a decent sandwich from just about any deli in any part of town, but for a true gourmet affair, most will agree that Sarcone's is king.

The little sandwich joint (now in the storefront right next to it's old front door on the corner of 9th and Fitzwater) isn't much to look at, but it's the expanse behind the counter that reveals a paradise of cured meats. Before I broke the pork barrier, my standby was the Booch: roast beef, asparagus, sharp provolone, and balsamic vinegar under a dusting of special herbs- a memorable sandwich. Though the Booch was a satisfying choice, I craved a side dish, and those prosciutto stuffed hot peppers were always there to entice me. My friend Brian would always get some behemoth sandwich piled with a rainbow of pork meats which I eyed curiously. I hadn't been to Sarcone's since last spring, and Brian currently works next door, which made it a good place for us to meet for lunch yesterday.

I came for the Italian hoagie only to find that there were three on the menu; the Italian, the American Italian, and the Old Fashioned Italian. All were nearly the same sandwich except slight variations in meat assortment. I went with the old fashioned; thin sliced prosciutto, hot sopressata, hot coppa, sharp provolone, oil, vinegar, lettuce, and tomato on a Sarcone's roll. I also got one red and one green prosciutto stuffed pepper. And an A&W root beer.

I started with the red pepper, expecting a slight punch. The smoky, slightly sour prosciutto took the edge off of the hotness and was as satisfying as i had imagined. Pickled things with meat stuffed into them don't occur often enough, particularly with non pork meats. This was one hell of a bite sized snack and I could eaten ten of them and skipped the sandwich. But then what kind of adventurer would I be?

The sandwich made it difficult to identify which meats I was tasting, leading me to inspect the culprits individually. The sopressata, slices of hot sausage, had far less chunky fat deposits in it than other salami I have had. It also lacked the overpowering saltiness I have come to associate with dry sausage. The hot coppa, or capicola was similar to the prosciutto in texture, but was a bit spicier. The balance of meats made for an intense mix of flavors yielding something that might even have been too strong for such a large sandwich if it wasn't for the provolone. Sarcon'e lays their sandwiches with thick slabs aged of provolone, the non-sharp variety unless otherwise requested, that tie together and sooth the volatile flavor mix of meats.

I have a mild complaint that is a controversial one in Philadelphia, and that regards Sarcone's rolls. Now, I don't mind a roll with some backbone, but there are days when the oven at Sarcone's bakery spawns bread that can ruin a sandwich, though never get called out for the love of an unquestioned Philly institution. All I'm saying is that I'd prefer a softer roll, one that would allow me to savor the mix of flavors occurring without placing cuts on the roof of my mouth through which they are absorbed.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Sticky Fingers BBQ Ribs

I've always loved beef ribs. Growing up in Thailand, I never got to experience them, but upon coming to the US, I found them to be among my favorite American foods. In the northeast, there's not much focus on the style of ribs. Rather, barbecue sauce has come to be a largely homogenous substance varying only slightly in flavor. I still love them though, one of my favorite's being Phoebe's BBQ in Philadelphia. When a new barbecue joint opened up in my neighborhood, the Italian Market, I was one of the first customers.

Bebe's BBQ was opened on 9th street by a fellow from North Carolina named Mark. A hospitable gentlemen, Mark would often offer my friends and I samplings of ribs, chicken, and sides as he made our sandwiches. His description of each sauce displayed a deep understanding of his art, and his eagerness for our feedback indicated a genuine love for barbecue. I never got the opportunity to offer my thoughts on his signature pork ribs, which passed under my nose into the hands of an eager sampler many times over. It was not at Bebe's BBQ that I first experienced the standby meat of southern barbecue. I got it straight from the source, in North Carolina.

While visiting my friends Tim, Abby, and Katie in Wilmington, NC this past summer, Tim learned of my newly liberated diet and insisted on a place called Sticky Fingers. Once we were seated, I had a regressive instinct and asked the waitress if they did beef ribs, an allegation she immediately denied. Well, I thought to myself, I'll take that as a sign. I ordered a half rack of Memphis style wet ribs with a side of baked beans and sweet potato casserole.

That second side, sweet potato casserole, was damn good. Upon tasting it I was momentarily distracted from the rib mission at hand and put a dent in half of it before moving on to the main part of the meal.

I separated the first rib from the rack. Being used to beef ribs, I was surprised by the ease with which it broke loose. This tenderness, Tim informed me, was a sign of a well cooked rack. In biting it, it revealed very little stringiness and the texture struck me as somewhere between a very moist broiled chicken and salmon. Of course, the flavor was far from either of these. Again, there was a slight sourness, though far less present than it was in any ham I had sampled. Perhaps that element had been cooked out in the slow grilling process. The sauce complemented pork ribs far more aptly than any sauce I had had on beef ribs. This is likely because sauces are perfected on the staple before being applied to other types of meat. The sweetness of the Memphis style sauce brought out the sweet elements of the meat, resulting in a flavor/texture combination that I hadn't expected. At that realization, I remembered what I was eating.

Being filled by this very heavy meal of pork had a new psychological effect on me. Again, I pictured the animal, though this time it didn't bother me as much. I felt undisciplined; that I had somehow faltered in my lifelong steadfastness. I later realized that through all those passed up ribs at Bebe's, ribs were the type of pork I wanted to try most. Having had it, I had shattered a mystery. Coming out on the other side, I was not disappointed by the experience. Rather, I realized that what I was missing out on was, in fact, simply meat. For the first time, I thought of how arbitrary the restriction of pork was. I'm missing out on kangaroo, shark, and elephant too, but those don't have the same allure, do they?

Sunday, January 10, 2010


Early in my stay in Rome, I witnessed another bit of Rachel's culinary genius in the form of her Penne a la Vodka. Between the quality local ingredients and her home style technique, the sauce was quite possibly the best I've had on pasta. The fresh basil and rosemary growing in little pots on the kitchen's window sill provided the garnish alongside a dish of small, crumbly reddish brown cubes, their grease soaking the hell out of the paper towel sheet beneath them. This, pancetta, would be my first bacon adventure.

I interpreted the pancetta accompanying Rachel's Penne a la Vodka as a salt substitute, as it simply furthered the savory element in the sauce. It seemed to be a dispensable component of the dish, and I found the texture of the pasta to be equally pleasant without the slightly burnt, crunchy mouth feel of the pancetta cubes. While delicious, it was not the ambrosial substance of its myth.

Psychologically, I initially balked at the idea of this cut, in many ways the ambassador of pork the world over. Through my days of restriction, nearly every pork eating person with whom the topic came up mentioned bacon as a favorite. This always managed to surprise me, as I always thought other forms of pork looked so much tastier than these greasy, wavy, fat infused strips. Nevertheless, bacon has hype behind it. While pancetta in pasta sauce was really tasty, I attributed the bulk of the talent to the sauce. I decided to wait patiently for the magic of bacon to reveal itself to me in later dishes.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Prosciutto and Melon

I arrived in Rome at the end of July, just before the city was emptied of Italians and populated by tourists. I, however, was not a tourist. My plan to stay in an apartment for six weeks in the summer, continuing to work daily, made me a kind of resident Roman in my own mind. I would not be swayed by tourist traps, nor would I fumble with tourist maps. I came to live.

This meant a couple of changes. In the months preceding my departure, I had had conversations with my mother regarding my Muslim faith and how I had reached a point of doubt, overcoming for the first time the fear that keeps so many of the faithful faithful. I can't remember now the specific rationale that led me to break the pork discipline in particular, as I still value such traits in myself. I just knew I didn't want to miss out.

I sat in the kitchen in our apartment on Via de Monte Verde. I had come to join my friends Tom and Rachel who had been in the city for some months and had a sublet in their apartment open up, which I promptly filled. Rachel's knack for cooking had adopted Italy, and upon hearing of my dietary deviance, Tom requested that we have prosciutto and melon. Rachel prepared the salty/sweet appetizer.

Initially, I noted the sourness of the thinly sliced meat. What I assumed to be the effect of the meat's curing I later understood to be a taste inherent in many cuts of pork. The very subtle tartness complemented the melon greatly. I should note that produce in Italy surpasses what we get in America by leaps and bounds. So it should be expected in a country that values quality over quantity and price in foods.

The combination of flavors was excellent. There was a canceling out effect, the meat's saltiness and the fruit's sweetness taking the edge off each other and allowing once to focus on the textures. The melon melted in my mouth, leaving the slightly elastic, fatty mouth feel of the ham to remain for a moment. It was a good start.

At this time, I felt a slight disgust. I couldn't stop thinking about the animal in its living form, wallowing through mud and nuzzling its own feces. The unhygenic nature of the pig is a firm belief among Muslims, and it's deterring image is an effective one when face with the meat. While modern pork is quite clean and won't make you sick, the idea of this animals pink, fuzzy flesh and its gluttonous behavior, its unusual nose and the noises it emits were very, very present in my mind as I ate. This feeling was strongest the first time I had pork, this dish of prosciutto and melon. Balanced with its good taste, the aversion would diminish as the adventures continued.

What a strange new feeling

For 25 years, I abode without question. I was ingrained with the historical significance of stories that made pork forbidden to me, my family, and the world's entire Muslim population. It became second nature.

As I grew and reached the inevitable point of questioning one's religion, I maintained my unporkitude, holding my discipline as a point of pride. "Does that have pork in it? Oh...No thanks." My friends berated me, asking why this single abstinence had out lasted all others. I drink alcohol, philander with women (albeit only one. I call her 'girlfriend'), gamble within my means, and duck every regulation that doesn't fit with my lifestyle, yet I did not eat pork.

Perhaps you are the same. To the chagrin of your parents, the first generation of their race that they spawned unto this land is a rule breaker, unfit to be called Muslim in any part of the world. Assimilation begins and ends at the convenience of these rigid and irreconcilable cultural laws.

I stepped past it in the year 2009. Shortly after I turned 25, it began. I eat pork. Each part of the animal, each dish is a new adventure to me, and I invite you to see it through my eyes and taste it through my palate, along with the curiosity, guilt, and the dismantling of a quarter century of psychological conditioning. Whether you are maintaining your dietary restriction or have eaten pork throughout life, you will see what it's like for a grown man and lover of all foods to experience this meat first hand, in all its forms.

These are My New Adventures in Pork.