A few years ago, I was fortunate to meet a friend of mine in Hong Kong. I remember prepping to meet her and saying that I was so excited to try legitimate, authentic Chinese food. She laughed in my face and was like “what is even Chinese food?” I think I just blinked at her, not knowing how to respond.
I’m sure many of you can relate – we only know “Chinese” food as a very generalized version of what actually exists. It took that visit to Hong Kong for me to realize that Chinese food is regional in nature – similar to that of Italy, Mexico, and several of the other foods that I’ve written about. And that we in America are actually missing out.
In the beginning of June, I’ll be landing in mainland China for the first time. This trip has been anxiety inducing, to say the least. I’ve been mentally preparing myself for the lack of personal space, inability to communicate, and the overwhelming number of people we’ll encounter. The other thing I’ve been trying to wrap my head around is the food. In speaking with a few people who have done a similar trip in the past, they’ve all indicated how they got sick of eating Chinese food after spending two weeks in China. Some even went as far as bringing food from home that was of comfort to them. It has really made me start to think about if there’s any food items I’d miss if I didn’t have access to them for two weeks (do tacos count?). And will I actually get sick of the food? After our vacation in Singapore and Thailand, I was ready to keep eating Thai food – and did – the day after we landed in PHL. What makes Chinese food so different?
To test my hypothesis, I figured I should check out a place that has been written up for years as one of the next big things in Philly food – Han Dynasty. Han Dynasty serves a Szechuan style of Chinese food, which originated in the Szechuan Province and is known for its level of spiciness. This is clear from the menu at Han Dynasty – which rates several of its dishes on a 1 to 10 scale of spice. In addition to the spice, Szechuan food also incorporates lots of garlic with the chili peppers (which means that I’ll feel right at home in combating vampires away from me after the meal).
Not fully knowing what to expect – other than intense heat in some cases – the bartender explained that the 6 on the spiciness scale was equivalent to that of Sriracha. My friend Tanner and I felt fairly comfortable with that assessment but still thought it would be smart to vary the intensity of the heat by ordering the garlic sauce style chicken (level 3), dan dan noodles (level 6), and the Szechuan fries (level 8).
The food was quick to arrive and was served in rather large portions. Each dish easily could have been the equivalent to one meal per person (and there were only 2 of us, which meant we each got some to take home). The dan dan noodles were first to arrive, and tossed table side. The noodles were freshly made with a ground pork and some scallions. And while the heat did not appear on the first bite, it quickly reared its ugly head after a few minutes. Tanner and I looked at each other like – we may have made a mistake ordering a level 8 dish.
The garlic sauce style chicken came next, with a side of white rice. The sauce was pretty right on with its description – sweet and sour. While the menu noted the spice, after the dan dan noodle the garlic sauce was fairly tame. I didn’t even notice a hint of spice. The garlic wasn’t over powering either, which means I’ll have to try another day to slay some vampires on my way home.
The Szechuan fries were the last to the party, and were accompanied by a side of ketchup which we both thought was on the stranger side of things. The fries were crispy and sprinkled with some chili peppers, which meant their spiciness level varied rather drastically – it mattered whether or not your fry had some chili pepper on it (or not at all).
Even though the Szechuan fries varied in heat intensity, the dan dan noodles were a clear indicator to me that you need to tread carefully with the heat levels if you’re venturing above a 6 (at least for my somewhat heat intolerant palette).
Before I get on that plane for my 14+ hour trip to China, I’ll be back in my old stomping grounds of Washington, D.C. It’s funny because recently I have been craving things from D.C. that I have a hard time finding in Philadelphia – like the pop tarts from Ted’s Bulletin. Can they be my comfort food on the plane?