They weren’t bad. It helped I was drinking beer. And that I had no choice but to dig in, as I’d been invited to join a table. I’d stopped at one of the late night hole-in-the-wall eateries that tempt with meat and vegetable skewers grilled over a charcoal fire. It was busy even though 10 PM on a Tuesday. In fact late night is when these neighborhood hangs get rolling.
I sat down outside, at a low table near the grill. A funky bit of cloth served as an awning against the threat of drizzle. Inside the tiny restaurant, no door, just an opening and down a step to a room, was a lively scene, some people playing cards, a small group devouring a tray piled high with skewers, like a strange game of pick-up sticks, and a couple slurping noodles. Ratty cardboard at the entry provided a shoe wipe due to the wet weather. No décor, and a small TV playing in the back. Plenty of empty beer bottles on the tables. Clientele was young, guys in T-shirts and women in tight jeans or glittery skirts and brightly-colored shoes. You’d think the dressed-up ladies would seem out of place in this beat-up hole of an eatery, except that kind of contrast isn’t uncommon.
The proprietress was a stout Naxi ethnic minority woman with a ready smile, in constant motion around the restaurant, and her rail-thin husband attended the equally narrow long grill. He turned skewers, slathering them with oils as they cooked, and sprinkling them with salty chili powder before sending them off to their destinations. Orders came in constantly, from tables who suddenly wanted something more, from new customers, from passers-by who made requests to go. He managed the fray while fragrant smoke billowed upwards, and kept a running tab on a clipboard.
The proprietress handed me a plastic container as she bustled by. Oh, I suddenly realized, you go to the big glass-door refrigerator near the entrance and pick out what you want. So I went to the refer. I saw neat piles of skewers: chicken wings, sausages, mini hot dogs, dumplings, meat wrapped in hot peppers, sliced potatoes, mushrooms, whole eggplant (split after cooked soft to become a bowl for ground pork in sauce), tofu, brains (whole not skewered), big shrimp, tiny shrimp, small whole fish, and something that looked like cubes of spam. And plenty of things I couldn’t identify.
I put some chicken wings and squash rounds in my basket. Crispy chicken wings and grilled vegetables seemed like a good way to start. I handed my basket to the cook, and sat down again.
At the table next to me were with three Chinese men and one woman. One fellow immediately poured beer into a glass, pushed it towards me and insisted on toasting. He downed his in a gulp, so I downed mine likewise in a show of cross-cultural good faith. The woman motioned me to join them for food. They were ordinary working folks, not like the well-dressed well-heeled Chinese tourists enjoying pretty Lijiang old town just around the corner. They didn’t speak English, and we carried on one of those disjointed, simple conversations. As we waited for the food, fragrantly sizzling just a few feet away, the man kept chugging beer, shouting this and that, louder and louder. His companions gave me resigned looks, but oh well, what was there to do?
The tray arrived steaming hot, just off the grill, mahogany-colored and dusted with chili/salt powder. There was no mistaking the identity. The claw-like shape; the toes each a different length, ending in little nails; the stout ankle; the bumpy skin. The woman pushed the tray toward me. She probably never imagined that this is not a favorite treat in America, since it is so universally popular in China. For that reason I’d been thinking I had to try them. The way you eye a distant mountain and think, someday I ought to see about hiking that. Yikes, suddenly I was at the trailhead. My moment of truth had arrived. Chicken feet.
So, under cover of darkness, importuned by beer, I picked one up and nibbled. I discovered skin, fat and cartilage, with a bit of meat, wedged around many small bones. Not much to sink your teeth into. I felt like like a squirrel chiseling away to get a tidbit.
Into my mind came images of where this foot had stepped. Chicken pens are not the most sanitary places. I stamped that thought down, had a swig of beer, and continued nibbling down the chicken foot, millimeter by millimeter. I was as cautious as a teenager making moves on the couch, yet driven on toward the unknown. I couldn’t help feeling grossed out as I carefully worked my way down the footpad towards the more intimidating toe and nail (the chef had ceremoniously clipped the nails after cooking, with a scissors). The others at my table were busy chewing on the bones and cartilage like they were gum and spitting the hard stuff onto the floor. I gathered vigorous nibbling and gnawing was half the point. The woman kept pushing the plate towards me, urging me to eat more.
All I can say is, what fun! The smoky salty flavor was tasty, the texture (not surprisingly) similar to a chicken wing tip. Perhaps not an ideal meal, but relaxed and human. It reminded me of a crab feed on Chesapeake Bay, a pile of just-cooked crabs dropped onto butcher paper, everything dusted with spicy salty seasoning, everybody cracking claws, sucking out meat, picking through shells and generally making a mess while drinking beer and licking fingers.
The fellow across from me was bellowing now, leaping up to make another toast, and when he knocked over his bottle and a foamy rivulet of beer headed my way across the table I asked for my maidan, the check, paid 20 yuan, about three dollars, said xie xie and went on my way into the night.
The entire world exports chicken feet to China, where they cost more per kilogram than frozen chicken breasts. They are available in many different preparations, including vacuum-sealed and requiring no refrigeration, ready to eat. Those packaged chicken feet, flavored with rice vinegar and chili, were my language teacher’s favorite snack.
Each chicken foot has 16 small bones. But unlike many birds, no webbed toes. I can vouch for that.