Who”s afraid of chicken feet?

OK, they can be crunchy and weird to Western palates. But if you are an expat here to experience China, maybe you shouldn’t miss out on Chicken McKnuckles.

My British friend Craig arrived in China with no fear of chicken feet.

“I used to eat them in Chinese restaurants in the UK when I was a young man,” he says. “A BBC (British-born Chinese) friend introduced them to me when I lived in Manchester. They were done in this delicious Cantonese sauce and I loved them.

“So, when I came to China and someone asked if I wanted to try chicken’s feet in a rather rough-and-ready restaurant, I immediately boasted that I was already a big fan.”

When he sat down at the table, however, things got ugly.

“What I had been expecting – tender feet in a nice sauce – was in fact a pile of what appeared to barely cooked feet, unseasoned, no sauce, and worse – not manicured. Like they’d just been ripped off the chicken. I choked down one and that was it.”

He told his perplexed Chinese friends that he hadn’t thought to bring nail clippers to dinner – “which they found amusing”.

Most foreigners who come to China have little experience with ji jiao, which are also more glamorously called feng zhua (phoenix claws), though the all-knowing Wikipedia tells us that they are served up in Indonesia, the Koreas, Malaysia, Trinidad and Tobago, Ukraine, Russia, Romania, Moldova, Jamaica, South Africa, Peru, Mexico, the Philippines and Vietnam as well as here in China. But I suspect none of those countries embraces chicken feet with the same enthusiasm cooks do in China.

They can appear in any province as a beer snack, cold dish, soup or main dish. In Guangdong and Hong Kong, they are popularly deep-fried and steamed first to make them puffy, then simmered in a sauce flavoured with black fermented beans or abalone. Around the mainland, marinated versions can be stewed with soy sauce, Sichuan peppercorns, cloves, garlic, star anise, cinnamon and chili flakes. Bai yun feng zhao is a popular cold dish redolent with rice wine, rice vinegar and minced ginger. In southern China, chicken feet are cooked with raw peanuts to make a thin soup.

And that’s just on the table: Packaged chicken feet jam the racks of modern grocery stores and supermarkets as a snack, often seasoned with rice vinegar and chili, or salt-baked and vacuum-packed, ready to eat.

US expats might be surprised to learn that most chicken feet served in China are imported from their fellow Americans.

“In fact, with such low margins, the chicken feet (or “paws”) business has been subsidising the US chicken business for years,” says Michael Rosenblum, chef at the US embassy in Beijing, who once whipped up a batch for the Chengdu Agricultural Trade Office. “It probably would have gone bust a long time ago if not for that.”

China joined the WTO in 2001, and two years later approved the direct import of US chicken feet. As of June 2011, 1 kilogram of raw chicken feet cost 12 ($1.88) to 16 yuan in China, compared to 11-12 yuan for the same amount of frozen chicken breast.

Just as not all foreigners are horrified to find Chicken McKnuckles on their plates, not all Chinese embrace this “delicacy”.

During a trip last year to Guizhou province, my neighbour Randy was dining with a Chinese colleague in a traditional restaurant.

“A platter of delicious-looking chicken feet was delivered and a succulent sample was dropped on his plate,” he recalls. “The colleague’s home was in Guizhou, so he knew all about this delicacy and I thought he would savor it. Instead, he wrinkled his nose in disgust, picked up the claw with two fingers and quickly passed it to the meek-looking foreigner sitting beside him. ‘I won’t eat that!’ he said.”

The sinewy nature of chicken feet (and the resulting crunch) make it hard to forget what you are eating: The edible tissue is mostly skin and tendons, not muscle, and laced with small bones. Because skin dominates the dish, it’s thought to be good for the complexion.

While we foreigners cheerfully eat poached eggs, rare beef and other treats that our Chinese friends rank somewhere between odd and disgusting, we struggle to embrace alien textures enjoyed here. I’m not talking about the night-market weirdness of, say scorpions on a stick. The posh Beijing eatery Da Dong sells many more plates of sea cucumber, for example, than of its famous Peking duck. My tongue still curls in horror at the memory of my first – and last – taste of that gelatinous critter.

Where I come from, “chicken foot” is a game we play with dominoes. Before I arrived in China I had only seen the real thing on dim-sum trolleys in Houston – and quickly looked away. My otherwise appealing new Beijing neighbourhood offered two freak-out moments almost as soon as I arrived: There was no coffee served at 7-Eleven, and the only late-night restaurant was the 24-hour House of Chicken Feet across the street.

But I learned to embrace the crunchy nuggets at a Shanghai restaurant where the feet were, well, dismembered a bit – enough that I couldn’t pick out my bird’s ring finger. Perhaps that chef saw me coming, and didn’t want me to describe his food later as if I’d been a contestant on the reality show Fear Factor. The dish was at least partially deboned, a tedious process that reduced the volume of food considerably.

It was delicious.
In fact, it tasted just like chicken.

— By Mike Peters

About Jack K. Harris

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