Comida China – Chinese cuisine customized for local palates – is one of those things best eaten in company as opposed to being eaten by one’s lonesome self. For the most part, most comida China dishes are served by the platter – obviously designed to be shared by a crowd sitting at a table where the spin of a Lazy Susan lets everyone pick at the platters at will.
One of the most popular dishes under the classic comida China menu is the braised pork leg known more commonly as pata tim. The name pretty much says it all: a whole leg of pork – most likely the hind leg rather than the foreleg, same part used for making ham – is braised in a highly savory sauce compounded from soy, pork broth, star anise, and possibly cinnamon.
Like other comida China dishes such as pancit and dimsum, there are numerous ways of preparing this dish depending on the person running the kitchen. Some cooks choose to give it a bit of sweetness by adding shaoxing - Chinese rice wine – to the sauce; some, however, prefer the addition of either honey or muscovado sugar to add rich, caramel undertones to bring out the innate sweetness of the pork. Other cooks choose to keep things savory by adding mushrooms and shredded leeks to the sauce as it reduces, thereby concentrating the flavors; any sweetness is put on after braising in the form of a dish of hoisin sauce on the side.
Hap Chan, one of my family’s favorite Chinese restaurants serves up pata tim in a grand style: on a large oval platter with splashes of that good brown sauce and decorated with flower-cut carrots, shredded leeks, and shiitake mushrooms. On the side, a platter of mantou (actually cuapao on the menu, but I’ll get into the fundamental difference between the two in another post) is served – much better than cupfuls of rice, in my personal opinion, and it makes the pork more fun to eat.
The pork is braised in such a way that it literally falls off the bone and the skin and fat just melt in one’s mouth. The taste is rich: meaty and savory with an earthiness from the mushrooms, a hint of sweetness from the carrots and leeks. Lumped into a split bun, it is gorgeous, sublime, and satisfying.