Eating Feet

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.

20 Comments

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  1. Zaaaaaak! What is the matter with you, boy? Here’s your new mantra: live life face first!

    I’ll betcha my Zen teacher would have eaten that chicken foot.

    My other association with chicken feet is (besides the farmyard ones you covered so well) the repeated references to “chicken foot stew” in the old classic Pogo comic strip.
    Guess the swamp folk were on to something, eh?

    Comment by Freeman — February 27, 2005 #

  2. Hey, Freeman!

    I am told by another of the good folks on the eatingchinese fora that there is a recipe for chicken feet and rice in none other but the White Trash Cookbook. Now, I have been fixin’ to get me one of those books for a while, but haven’t gotten around to it yet, but will have to now. Because, if you have been following the blog here, and I know you have been, you will notice that I have been making note of similarities between Hillbilly food and Chinese food.

    So, chicken feet is another little thread to follow there. I have another topic I am going to be blogging about after we get back from Tuscon and Santa Fe in that vein.

    And yeah, Freeman–you tell Zak! I’d never offer him something that tasted bad under the pretext that it tasted good. I mean, I might taste something and say, “Oh, this is godawful, taste it,” in the way of all humans, but to Zak I would never, ever, put a smile on my face and say, “Oh, this is good, taste it,” just to get him to eat something nasty.

    Though, I have to admit, I have done that to people who have vexed me greatly or whom I don’t much care for now and again, I would never do that to someone I love.

    And I do love Zak. ;-) So, he is safe from that aspect of my tricksterish tendencies.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — February 27, 2005 #

  3. What’s the matter with me? Quite a few things, actually, but the one that’s the most applicable here is an annoying squicked feeling. I tried thinking of them as hobbit hands (to the point of editorializing, “There goes Frodo the Nine-Fingered… Eight-Fingered… Seven…”) but it was to no avail.

    When I grow up & become a Zen teacher, I’ll eat chicken feet. Until then, I’ll feast lustily on taro dumplings, turnip cake, and pork siu mai.

    Comment by crazyquilt — February 27, 2005 #

  4. “When I grow up & become a Zen teacher, I’ll eat chicken feet.”

    Definite koan material.

    Comment by Freeman — February 27, 2005 #

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    Comment by Anonymous — February 27, 2005 #

  6. Interesting how the quality of the cooking makes a vast difference.

    The very first time I ever went to Dim Sum, I went in a group that included an ethnicly-raised first-gen Chinese-Canadian (so he was chatting with the cart-pushers in plosives, tonals, and clicks to my uneducated ear). He was a ‘joke-eater’ and kept offering us foods that would not be considered ‘food’ mingled in with valid ‘this is good’ recommendations so that he could then reveal what the food was after. I am an empath, so I could easily tell the difference but I ate them anyway because I didn’t think the entire restaurant was engaged in a practical joke; if the food was on the cart it must be actually human-edible.
    The 2 joke-foods that stand out were stomach and feet. The stomach looked like a dumpling externally, but I looked at the internal structure after I took a bite. “What do you think it is?” asked the Chinese Guide, giggling internally. “Stomach.” “How did you know??!!” “I’m a biologist, and so I recognise the internal structure…” The taste was bland.
    The feet, of course, looked like feet but the Chinese Guide made it into a dare. They tasted very foot-like; scaley, tough, earthy. It was not a positive taste experience.
    He made up for it at the end by ordering lychee custard ‘off menu’, which was most delightful.

    Comment by wwjudith — February 27, 2005 #

  7. I love it: “I’m a biologist, so I recongize the structure.”

    These feet really were good; I cannot imagine eating scaly tough, icky feet.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — February 27, 2005 #

  8. Three cheers for you Barbara! You’ve conquered where many have feared to tread. A story to share with you on chicken feet. When I was just starting out to hold a pencil and learn to write, my grandmother told me that I should not eat chicken feet for my hands would be unsteady and shaky. My handwriting would be ugly like “chicken scratch” as she said. But I found out much later on that most old folks love chicken feet and to ensure that they get those parts, conjoured up such stories to scare off the younger ones like us. Shirley

    Comment by Anonymous — February 27, 2005 #

  9. Oh, that is a great story!

    They really are rich; I can see why they’d want to “scare the kids away” so they could keep all the goodies to themselves. ;-)

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — February 27, 2005 #

  10. Cool that you love it. I like eating chicken feet also especially the ones they make for dim sum as they braise them with the black bean kind of sauce so it’s tasty. Yes, we add them to soups and it’s tasty. It’s nice to eat from the soup also as it’s all tender from the boiling.

    The Thais eat them crunchy, they debone them and eat it like a salad tossed with vegies and a tangy sauce.

    Comment by boo_licious — July 21, 2005 #

  11. Hello, Boo–you must be patient, combing through the archives. I should see if I can figure out how to index them.

    Thanks for the info on Thai ways of eating chicken feet–I hadn’t known that. I doubt that I would ever find a dish like that in a restaurant in the US, though.

    Black beans are just plain good–they seem to make everything very tasty.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — July 21, 2005 #

  12. Hell I did not know a chicken had any meat above their knees until I was 21 years old. Very Very good eating

    Comment by Doff Trolio — February 5, 2008 #

  13. Hell I did not know a chicken had any meat above their knees until I was 21 years old. Very Very good eating

    Comment by Doff Trolio — February 5, 2008 #

  14. The feet are cooking in a soup as I write. I wanted to make a whole chicken soup with a market chicken from the union square farmers market. However, I got to the market too late today and all they had was feet. I remembered reading something about the feet soup and decided to try it. I researched a few recipes and found one that seemed simple – boil the feet in water and take off the scum. Then wash and snip the nails off (a little gross). After that add back to a fresh pot and add carrots, onions and I think it called for sage – but they had fresh oregano at the market today – so I put that in. We’ll see what happens in 4 hours. I’m betting on a damn good stock.

    Comment by Meredith Sobel — November 1, 2008 #

  15. Ienjoyed your article and its comments.

    In the Philippines, chicken feet are sold by the truckload in streets.

    It is boiled in a concoction similar to barbique marinade, boiled until soft, put individualy in a stick and grilled.

    Comment by joma — July 8, 2009 #

  16. I am for the first time making a soup out of the chick. feet. While I was boiling them my mind and taste buds took me back to my grandma’s chick. soup from the wonderful, warming aroma. I don’t have it done yet but boy!! am I looking forward to eating this soup with rice….mmmmmmmm…..I can taste it now.

    Comment by Winnie — October 21, 2009 #

  17. My family used to fry chicken feet as well as the necks 4 or 5 lbs at a time when a bunch of us got together. This was around 1946 or 47. Yum Yum!

    Comment by bewiskered — August 27, 2010 #

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