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Embracing the strange

[one_half][A]round the holidays, our lab conducts an annual outing for dim sum.  It’s an event I always look forward to, and one of the rare cases when we can reliably tear everyone away from the bench for a few hours. There are about 20 of us, however, so we usually can’t fit at one table. Upon arrival, the group chaotically organizes into two subgroups based on a number of criteria: Who wants to sit next to the boss? Who doesn’t want to be anywhere near the boss? Who can’t be separated from their BFF?, etc. Weeks before our first outing, my rotation advisor attempted to generate table assignments based the more rational criterion of what people wanted to order and eat. Dim sum is served family style, and best enjoyed with a like-minded group of eaters. I have to give Brian credit for devising a one-question diagnostic that fairly and accurately assesses the likelihood that a diner will be on board with the ordering habits of her responding cohort: Do you eat chicken feet?

For those who have not yet had the pleasure of indulging in dim sum, let me explain the ordering procedure.

(Customs vary, but most large dim sum houses in the city run this way.) A waiter comes by and takes, typically, a single order from the table. A representative from the table fills out the paper form, which is then checked off or stamped as the staff delivers each dish. It is very important to get that order right, since a busy restaurant can’t efficiently fulfill follow-up orders on the fly. In the meantime, servers are bringing around carts of dishes that the table may add to the order. You normally don’t want those for two reasons: First, you’ve presumably optimized your paper order. Second, the restaurant knows that turnover from the carts is unpredictable. Therefore, they only send out dishes that can tolerate sitting around a while, i.e. none of the prime dishes or perennial favorites like har gau (shrimp dumpings) or the sublime tang bao (soup-filled dumplings).

So the recipe for success at dim sum is:

  1. Have at least one person at the table (preferably one who speaks Cantonese) who knows how to order.
  2. Populate the table with people who eat what you eat, and know not to accept most orders from the cart.

I’ve had my fair share of bad dim sum experiences. On a number of occasions, I’ve been at a table so perplexed by the myriad dishes on the menu that we ultimately found ourselves with a motley collection of redundant, filling, mediocre items. So I knew very well the importance of above strategy to the overall dim sum experience. This time, I was determined to get seated at the correct table. That would be the chicken feet table.

I had never had chicken feet in my life. They are not comely. In fact, they look a bit like goblin hands. But this was one of the best dim sum restaurants in the Bay Area, and I didn’t want my non-chicken-feet-eating ways to stand in the way of the best possible dim sum experience the restaurant had to offer. So I said, Yeah, I eat chicken feet.

The verdict? Immediately one of my all-time favorites, and one that I’ve wanted to reproduce at home for some time. Savory, with a mild kiss of heat, chicken feet prepared in this way have a profound richness derived from a high content of slow-cooked cartilage and tendon—elements that contribute the vast majority of texture, flavor and body to a stock or consommé. The closest comparison I can make is to the middle joint of a chicken wing. Tender, gelatinous, with lots of skin. But in the case of chicken feet, not as much of the meat itself.

If you’re the type of person who gets a little skeeved out by the middle joint of a chicken wing, perhaps the feet are not where you want to start. On the other hand, if you have never had chicken feet and are open to trying them, I suggest you get yourself to a chicken feetery post haste. Or, make them yourself. The recipe is straightforward and satisfying. Note: this is the first Chinese dish I have ever cooked, and it is a bang-on version of the dim sum classic.

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Phoenix talons (chicken feet in black bean sauce)
very slightly adapted from My Several Worlds

1 lb chicken feet
1-2 qts neutral cooking oil
2 qts water
1 oz fresh ginger
2 pieces star anise
2 oz cilantro root*
2 ounces maltose sugar*

the marinade
2 T oyster sauce
1 T sugar
2 T soy sauce
1 T rice wine or cooking sake
1 jalapeno, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp white pepper*
1 T fermented black bean sauce
1/2 tsp sesame oil

*Cilantro can be found on the root in Thai markets. More easily, stems may be substituted.
*Maltose sugar comes in either syrup or powder form, and can be found in some Asian markets. Eden foods makes a barley malt syrup, which is 76% maltose. Alternatively, 1/4 C of white sugar may be substituted.
*White pepper is traditional in Chinese cuisine. However, many find its aroma to be objectionable. Black pepper may be substituted here with little consequence.

Wash chicken feet thoroughly and pat dry with paper towels. Cut off nails with kitchen shears and discard. Coat feet with sugar and deep-fry at 350F until golden brown (5 – 7 mins).

Boil water and add ginger, star anise and cilantro root. Add chicken feet and simmer for 1.5 – 2 hours until tender. Drain.

Combine ingredients for the marinade and gently toss with chicken feet. When the mixture has cooled, cover and refrigerate overnight, or up to 24 hours.

Before serving, steam feet and marinade in a small bowl for 15 minutes. Garnish with sliced scallions or toasted sesame seeds, if desired. Serve hot, with a side of white rice.

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And now, some blatant pandering to my beloved Foodbuzz editors (see right) …

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Chicken feet: They’re not just for dim sum anymore…

“Top 9” me?

What did you think I would make—a cupcake?

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