Friday, March 12, 2010

Han Dynasty's Pork Belly in Garlic Sauce

When I was in Tokyo for my semester abroad in 2005, I chose Seoul as my destination for the only trip I took outside Japan when I had the chance. Though I have no regrets about that decision, I really wish I'd made it to China. Friends of mine, a pack of architects (including recurring Adventures in Pork character Brian O'Keefe), returned from their trip to Shanghai and Beijing with tales of what actual Chinese food was like; in short, the noble origins of the bastardized, MSG infused concoctions of the yellow signs. I decided then that if I ever got a chance to make the trip, I would make it a food trip...well, I guess every trip I make is at least partially a food trip.

There's no Chinese culinary tradition as celebrated for its diversity as Szechuan cuisine. When Brian and Justin mentioned Han Dynasty in Old City, they were quick to note its lack of similarity to standard Chinese food. This is an important distinction in Philadelphia. Indeed, even what you find in Chinatown may be apt to have Dutch Masters sold alongside. It was raining like hell when Brian, Justin, Rachel, and myself walked into Han Dynasty.

The layout of the menu jumped out at me immediately. Each dish listed meat options to combine with the preparation; chicken, beef, pork, shrimp. We went with a couple of chicken dishes and a plate of pork with long hots, but what really made an impression on me was pork belly the likes of which I had never tried.

While many Chinese curries have put me off in the past with excessive greasiness, these slices of uncured belly piled in a hot, oily garlic sauce was nothing by pleasing. Utilizing my chopstick skills, I used each slice to wrap a bit of rice and a small piece of cucumber also swimming in the hot oil. The pork smell that so often repulses me was present, but in a manageable amount. What I mostly tasted was the garlic sauce, which was soaked into every little slice. The other pork dish, prepared with long hots, was there and did its thing, but in the end the pork belly stole the show.

I have to note that just after the pork belly appetizer showed up, our friend Hal walked in to Han with the most ridiculous mustache I've ever seen. Laughing my ass off and enjoying pork belly at the same time was a combination of pleasures so good it should be illegal. Hal, if you read this, please send me a picture. The world needs to see.

Another notable memory from this meal not soon to be forgotten was an encounter with a deadly spice. At one point Brian paused and said he'd bitten into something that made his mouth go cold and prevented him from eating for a solid three minutes (not an easy feat). The culprit was finally isolated and Justin passed me an innocent looking little pod and told me to taste it. What tasted familiar at first quickly became a bombardment of my taste buds that was in no way pleasant. Drinking cold water only made it worse, as the Novocaine sensation spread over my tongue. We asked the owner who told us this was the infamous Szechuan peppercorn. Go to Han, but look out for these little bastards while you're there.

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