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The first time I experienced chicken feet, I was a young girl with an under developed palate and very little curiosity when it came to strange food. We were at my mom’s favorite dim sum restaurant in Oakland and it was my indoctrination into cart service. Surly Chinese women rolled around shiny metal dollies covered with mysterious steamed and fried foods hidden in delicately balanced bamboo steamers, beneath dented steel plate covers, and inside of plastic wrapped bowls. They approached us swiftly, thrusting their wares towards the table while rattling off the names of the different dishes carried within their cart. I quickly learned that there were specific groupings of steamed, fried, and sweet foods that always traveled together. The woman with the strange rice roll covered in dried shrimp almost always also had baskets of delicious shrimp har gaw and pork shumai on board. The carts with egg rolls and long golden Chinese donuts also had the much coveted hom sui gok, deep fried sweet glutenous rice balls shaped like footballs and filled with pork, shrimp, and mushrooms. However, one cart was almost always covered in things so foreign even my mother couldn’t identify them. Invariably, this cart was guaranteed to be carrying the infamous, the mysterious, and the somewhat unsettling chicken feet.
I remember thinking to myself, “Who eats feet??” They looked shriveled yet slimy and sitting in a small bowl of broth and black beans. We politely declined the dish and shared a concerned and confused glance before searching out a more desirable cart. For the next ten years I continued to wave away the poultry talons, until one fateful day I let my curiosity get the best of me. I don’t know what caused my change of heart, but for some mysterious reason, the feet moved me.. They looked appetizing. Instead of looking wet and clammy, they looked fresh and crisp. I accepted the basket and cautiously prodded them with my chopsticks. Chicken feet are mainly skin and bone, with a few tendons here and there, which means they are very gelatinous. Imagine if you can, a thick savory jello, studded with garlic, black beans, and small bones that melts in your mouth. That, in a nutshell, is the foot experience. It’s a strange one, but it’s also oddly enjoyable. I know that I will never make a regular habit out of eating feet, but every now and then the urge strikes and I find myself invariably flagging down that mysterious cart and gleefully accepting the basket of soft steamed collagen and delight.
Photo by Victor Tseng
Food Stylist: Carolyn Edgecomb