It can be all too easy to stick to your culinary comfort zone in Shanghai, be it KFC or gōngbǎo jīdīng. As a challenge to break these habits and avoid the rut, every few weeks Shanghaiist will explore one of the more intriguing options out of China’s endless array of curious cookery. Although bizarre to most Western palates, these oft-avoided edibles usually boast unique medicinal properties, nutritional benefits, and intriguing culinary histories. We’ll explore for you where they came from and where you can sample these rare eats for yourselves.
CHICKEN FEET (鸡爪, jī zhuǎ)
Regions of use: China, Korea, Vietnam, South America, Central America, Caribbean, South Africa, Middle East
Tasted at: Wet market // 115 Leshan Lu, near Guangyuan Xi Lu (乐山路115号, 近广元西路) // Closest Metro Stop: Xujiahui (徐家汇) Line 1/9
For many expats, nothing snuffs out an appetite like finding a knobby, taloned foot at the bottom of their takeout container of chopped chicken. Upon uncovering one, my friends shut their eyes and turn away clench-faced and queasy as if they’d just unearthed a dismembered limb in an episode of CSI: Shanghai. And since exposure is the best way to conquer fear, today we’re chowing on chicken feet.
The Chinese have likely enjoyed chicken feet for as long as they’ve eaten chicken, which harks back to at least the Zhou Dynasty (1066 – 221 BCE), probably even earlier. Called “phoenix claws,” chicken feet were, and still are, prized for their high collagen content which improves complexion, hair and nails; making them similar to bird’s nest, except about a bazillion times cheaper. But despite their cheapness, chicken feet have had a big impact on Sino-Western economic relations.
In recent years, US chicken feet have flooded China’s markets, a move that’s helped keep the American chicken industry afloat. 2008 saw the US export $677m of chicken to China with chicken feet making up about half the value. In fact, the Chinese Poultry Association complained in 2010 about how US chicken feet imports undercut the Chinese chicken industry, stating:
“Chicken feet and wings are not wanted in the U.S. so they sell them to China, they dump them below cost. For over a decade, the U.S. has sent big volumes of chicken to the Chinese market, hurting producers here.”
To combat this, China imposed a tax of over 100% on American chicken feet, fraying China-US trade relations. Clearly an exotic food that could ruffle the feathers of two world superpowers possessed some special culinary traits, and I hoped to discover what they were.
Going toe-to-toe with chicken feet
Dim sum-style chicken feet
I sat down on a stoop near a crowded intersection, selected one of the pale, pebbly feet and started stripping it’s flesh like a Dawn of the Dead zombie. And loved it. The chicken foot offered a mosaic of textures: the pad on the foot’s sole was spongy yet crunchy while the skin on top of the foot and leg stretched elastically like cooked snake-hide. The flavor brought to mind regular boiled chicken skin, but leaner and less filling.
Two talons way up.
Last time on Off the Beaten Palate: Pig’s head, liver, kidneys, and ears
See a complete list of our Off the Beaten Palate series here.
Benjamin Cost is Shanghaiist’s Food Editor. Email tips, recommendations, and news updates on Shanghai’s dining scene to [email protected].