No, I haven’t gone and stuck my foot in my mouth.
I’m here to talk about chicken feet.
For all that I adore Chinese food, and have happily snarfed down things that make many Americans shudder to think of, such as tiny whole dried, salted fish, thousand year old eggs, jellyfish and sea cucumber, I had never, until today, partaken of a favorite dim sum dish: chicken feet.
At first it was for obvious reasons–the thought of eating fowl feet squicked me out; I grew up feeding the hens and gathering eggs on my grandparents’ farm–I know what chickens do with their feet. Worse, I grew up helping to dismember said chickens and rendering them fit to eat, and had seen what their feet do when they die, and I couldn’t get the picture of the dying spasms of a chicken out of my head when I saw chicken feet.
But, I hear Chinese folks talk about how good they are, and I have to wonder. What is it about the feet? There isn’t much to them, really, if you think about it. Lots of bones, some skin, a bit of muscle, a lot of tendons and sinew and that is it.
But, the last time we had gone to the dim sum place, the guys at the table next to us had gotten them, and they smelled wonderful. I did not stare, though I was curious as to how one goes about eating chicken feet. It is really impolite to stare at strangers while they eat, even if you are only curious so you can imitate them and not make an ass of yourself trying to eat an utterly unfamiliar food. I suppose I could have tried to explain, but I don’t want to be perceived as a rude gwailo under any circumstances.
So, I kept my eyes forward, and just let the smell of them drive me wild with curiosity. The sounds the two feet eaters were making were maddening–they were obviously enjoying themselves immensely.
So, I decided.
I would ask some of the folks who post over on the forum at eatingchinese.org how exactly, one goes about eating the feet.
And, as I expected, everyone was very kind and generous with their answers.
So today, I took the plunge, ordered the feet, and ate most of an entire order myself while Zak watched in fascination.
They came in a little bowl inside a metal steamer pan, four to an order. As promised, the feet had a pedicure before they came to the table–the claws were clipped off, but they were still recognizable as bird feet. They were bathed in a braising liquid of some sort, and sat, curled up side by side, their skin puffy and wrinkled from long cooking, and stained deep brown from dark soy sauce.
I plunged my chopsticks in, plucked up a foot and took a small bite from one of the toes. My incisors severed the last knuckle and it popped into my mouth, bones and all. I finally realized what the folks at eatingchinese meant when they said not to eat chicken feet at a business meeting or when you go out on a first date. They are not a dish to be eaten quietly and delicately. I ended up slurping, as I sucked the muscle, tendon and skin off the bone, then used my chopsticks to take the bone from between my teeth and convey it to the edge of my plate.
The flavor was evocative, and much richer than I expected. There was the deep sweetness of dark soy sauce, but really the chicken flavor was paramount and it exploded into my mouth. Chicken feet are juicy, and I had to fight to keep from dribbling broth down my chin.
The skin, though softened from being braised, had the flavor of fried chicken, which, as a kid who grew up on Southern country home cooking, I can really get behind. The texture was interesting, both soft and resilient, and I enjoyed nipping the skin off of the bones before popping them in my mouth to suck the tissue off of them. I wasn’t too keen on the tendons; the texture was too rubbery for me, but I ate them anyway.
I discovered that there is a fat pad in the underneath part of the foot, and that is where all the juice and the richness was coming from. Biting into that was like taking a big spoonful of the best, most golden, glorious chicken stock in the world; the intensity of the chicken flavor in that tiny mouthful was as satisfying as an entire bowl of soup. It was utterly delightful.
And that is when I understood why chicken feet are so loved and are seen as comfort food. They are the essence of chicken flavor in a tiny, bony, rather creepy-looking package. I remembered how one of our chefs in culinary school told us that the best chicken stocks included chicken feet, because they were full of flavor and aroma. Everyone recoiled from his comment, except for my Chinese friend from Singapore, who nodded in agreement. “My grandma always puts feet in her soup,” he whispered to me. “It makes it good.”
I ate three of the feet, but had to let the fourth one go. I couldn’t eat another bite; they were too intense, too rich, for me to eat an entire order myself. And no matter what I did, I couldn’t convince Zak to try the last one.
Not even calling them “hobbit hands” did the trick, though he did perk up at the thought.
So, now the question is–will I eat feet again?
Undoubtedly, though I hope I can share them with someone, so I don’t feel beholden to try and eat an entire order myself. I wouldn’t want to fill myself up and miss all the other great dim sum dishes, after all.
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