Curious Cuisine in Hong Kong
“Bite and suck,” Tami tells me, her umber eyes wide with anticipation.
Using my fingers, I pick up the kiwi sized chicken foot from the hot metal bin on the table. It’s seasoned yellow skin warms the pad of my thumb. The clangs of dishes and nasal sounds of the patron’s nine-toned Cantonese fade in proportion to my growing apprehension.
“It’s okay, really. They’re good,” Tami says while reclining. Her her bony shoulders rest on the fabric covered chair back. Her straight black hair brushes the curved top of its brass edges. “Try it.”
Why not, right? It’s just chicken. Chicken like any other chicken only this time raised in Hong Kong, cooked in the New Territories and served up foot-only style. It’s just chicken at this native-filled, dinner-only restaurant just a few blocks from the Sham Shui Po metro stop.
Tami was a high school exchange student in my small mid-western hometown. Her only complaint was our lack of authentic Chinese food. Fifteen years later, here I am, on her turf debating whether to suck the meat off this Chinese chicken foot. It’s the polite thing to do. Eat her food, that is. After all, she ate mine. And after hiking to the Peak Tower, exploring the Stanley Main Street Market on the other side of the island, and navigating the rush hour metro, I am famished.
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll do it. I’m just getting prepared,” I say inspecting the bumped flimsy skin. Each drip of grease begins to decorate my white porcelain plate in the shape of a smile. “How do I do it?”
“Stick the entire foot into your mouth up to this joint,” she pointed to the knobby piece of cartilage displaying a white hue underneath the thin layer of meat. “Once you’ve bitten, then suck hard. All the good meat will slide right off into your mouth, juicy and rich. You can tell if it’s been prepared well if the meat slides easily, not too raw and not too cooked.”
I take a breath and exhale slowly, puffing out my cheeks like Miles Davis on the trumpet. A large laughter explodes from the family of seven seated behind us, breaking my concentration. At first look, the low-ceilinged ballroom-style restaurant is dotted by circular tables strewn about in no particular order. Upon further analysis, I see the two-hundred patrons, evenly spaced. Thin walkways fill with wandering waiters. Stares gleam in my direction from a few of the smiling faces in this popular eatery. One male with gelled spiky hair nods, the bobbling head type of nod, silently encouraging me.
“Here it goes,” I say, crossing my eyes over the bridge of my nose. The noises fade again. I watch my hand lift the now lukewarm clump of bone, flesh, cartilage and muscle to my mouth. As instructed, I open my mouth wide enough to insert the entire foot, still securing the end with my hand. With lips spread apart, massive pink gums flash my audience. I search with my top two and bottom four teeth for the notch of the joint.
A deep groan sounds from my throat as I prepare to suck. My eyes dart to Tami, a typical petite Chinese woman, as she laughs at the site of this big American traveler tasting her first chicken foot. Now, like the boy on the Cheerio commercials, I form an “O” with my mouth and clamp down. The slimy skin tingles my lips. I blow out from my nose so as not to smell. Inside my tongue works furiously around the bone, loosening the skin, in preparation for the suck.
I stretch my eyes and pinch all my cheek muscles inward like a bad face lift. With rookie precision I pull my hand away from my face and simultaneously suck the entire contents from the bone. My mouth churns its contents towards the back of my teeth and up again, chewing the tender meat. I drop the foot carcass on the metal plate along side it’s matching bin as I savor the spicy grease inside my mouth.
“Well,” says Tami with a smirk, “What do you think?”
I force a swallow. Wait. Swallow again. Then turn and say, “Tastes like chicken.”
Tami stands with bent knees and reaches her pale lanky arms over the table. The sizzles and commotion of the restaurant ricochet off my ear drums once again. I glance towards the previous stare and catch a thumbs up from Spiky Haired Man. I have passed the first gastronomy test and have yet to crack.
“Next, I have a salad for you to try,” Tami says, placing a cereal bowl-sized container in front of me. “You need to use your chop sticks for this one. I’m going to eat some too.”
As I reach for the two plastic black sticks, a classy place, no wood, I examine my next challenge. The bowl overflows with a mound of curly pink things, the color of silly putty. They’re not alive. The smooth tubular items glisten with a juicy sauce. The overpowering scent of lime blocks any other defining smells.
I rest one heavy chop stick on the top knuckle of my right hand middle finger while the expert Tami, quickly snatches up a salmon-colored squiggle. I then clasp the other stick in between my pointer finger and thumb, brass wrapped end towards my forearm, rounded tip up. Tami continues to shovel the salad into her mouth without a drop of dressing spotting the maroon polyester/linen table cloth. With tools finally in balance, I begin to prod the now flattened pile.
“What is it?” I ask as I begin my investigation, pinchers bouncing off the silly putty. Some mysterious greens speckle the bite-sized morsels.
She eyes my face then the bowl, back to my face, and says, “Don’t worry about it. Just eat it. It’s good.”
I stop asking. Better not to know. I’m fortunate to have no food allergies so I tell myself to remain flexible, to adapt. With my free hand, I clench the cloth napkin lying next to the bowl and move it to my lap. Worst case scenario, I’ll spit it out.
Using my stick tips I poke what I now rationalize as dense lime-flavored, wet bubble gum curly fries. After four unsuccessful attempts at securing a curl with my chops, I finally succeed. The rubber band bounces around in my mouth while I slurp the sour sauce off my lips. I bite. The soft crunch resonates up through my jaws and into my ears. Jagged edged strands of meat stick in the crevasses of my teeth, not the least bit succulent. I crunch again.
My eyelashes flutter. Eyes begin to water. I imagine the whites growing red. “I think I got a pepper,” I mumble through my full mouth. Releasing the crinkled napkin, I grab my glass of water.
Tami, both elbows propped on the table, watches my reaction. “Yeah, I should have told you, there are chili peppers added to the lime juice and vegetables shavings. They add flavor. How do you like it so far?” she asks.
Am I supposed to say to my gracious hostess, that its awful, that I’ll never try it again? Burning tongue quenched I say, “Not bad, there’s not too much taste from the meat of the fish part or whatever it is. But I like the sauce.” I felt the first bite hit my stomach and imagined it squirming about, revived from its dormant phase and rejuvenated by human stomach juices.
“I’m glad you like the pig’s ear salad,” she says, like I’ve heard it a million times before.
With left hand back in my lap around the napkin, my right slowly sets down my chop sticks on the quarter sized, white porcelain holder to the right of my plate. I look again at the bowl, then back at Tami. She laughs and calls the waiter over with a flick of her raised hand. “This next one we order fresh. It’s not so good room temperature so he’ll bring it out hot in a minute.”
I raise my eyebrows “Do I ask about this one?” I say.
While we wait, Tami pulls out a long thin notepad from the plastic office holder in the center of the table. The movement disrupts the handful of small eraserless pencils behind it.
“This is how most of the sit-down restaurants work in Hong Kong. It’s better to eat with a larger crowd, your family,” she says studying the slashes, dots, and crosses that formulate the Chinese characters printed on the pad. “We usually come here together, my grandma, parents, and my brother and sister.” Tami and her siblings, all over twenty-five, still live at home together. “With six people we fill up a table and then mark on the notepad the dishes that we want to share. My dad gives the paper to the waiter and the food comes. Sometimes we order fifteen or twenty plates of food.”
I scan the crowd guessing who is the grandma or the wife. Which child belongs to which couple. Each table a different personality: the strong silent types, the gregarious jokesters, intimate confidants. As the only American here, I feel honored to participate in this cultural experience, a Tuesday evening dinner. Already strange by the way I look, I choose not to be strange by the way I eat.
The waiter returns holding another white porcelain plate with his silver potholder. I sit up, arch my back, and lift my chin to peer over the top. As the plate descends in front of my face I see three cream colored disks, the size of hockey pucks, but only half the thickness. They swim in a thick light brown broth.
“Is it sweet?” I ask, leaning over to catch a smell, if any.
“No, but you have to eat it warm. In the olden days this was served to royalty. People don’t eat it much any more. They’re reserved for special occasions.” Tami takes a knife. Securing the slippery puck with her chop stick, she begins to saw one disk into a bite-sized piece for me.
I imagine myself in purple silk gown, decorated with scarlet and golden embroidery. All the people of the restaurant are my courtesans. Our sole purpose, to protect and promote peace throughout the land.
The smell of left-over, cold chicken feet bursts my fantasy. Wafts of sour lime mixed with the sweet sizzling beef and basil from the table to my right, seeps under my nose.
“It’s easier to eat this way,” Tami says as she pushes the morsel towards my edge of the plate. “Here you go.”
Instead of pinching, I spear the puck with one chop stick and raise it to my nose. A mixture of dirt and sugar smell lingers near each nostril. I place the warm, heavy piece into my mouth and begin to chew. It’s tough and hard to penetrate. Not crunchy like a potato chip, but hard to chew like cold caramel. A little airy. My tongue licks and sucks the juices off the now white disk, almost like a water chestnut, but much sturdier.
Tami must notice the crinkle of my forehead and squint in my eyes. She doesn’t wait for the large bulge of my throat to rise up and fall. She hands me a cool milky, kool-aid concoction and says with a smile, “Chicken feet, pigs ears and camel hooves. Welcome to Hong Kong.”
Born and raised in Wisconsin, Ellen Peneski’s earliest memory of traveling is at the age of six, when her parents said at 11:30 p.m. one evening, “Get ready kids we’re going to a baseball game.” The author didn’t question the midnight departure, nor the fact that they were driving to Toronto, Canada…over twelve hours away. Since then, Peneski’s journeys have taken her to 48 of the United States, and more than 35 countries in South East Asia, Europe, Central and South America.