Memoirs of a chicken feet aficionado in Vietnam

By Trang Bui   September 2, 2017 | 10:24 am GMT+7
Memoirs of a chicken feet aficionado in Vietnam
Hanh holding a chicken's foot at a shop in Hanoi's Old Quarter. Photo by VnExpress/Trang Bui

The Vietnamese obsession with the crunchy claws.

My relationship with chicken feet used to be a casual affair. A few munches here and a few more there was enough to satisfy me, nothing too sinister.

My close friend, Hanh, on the other hand, has always been a die-hard fan. A 24-year-old Hanoian software tester, Hanh orders three bags of spicy, marinated chicken feet a week, 500 grams each, and stores them in the fridge. She spends hours gnawing on them all by herself, at home and at work.

For anyone wanting to find the best places for chicken feet in Hanoi, Hanh, the claw expert, is your girl. Even if dinner is ready, all she can think about is chicken feet.

“It’s the only thing I can carry on eating even when I’m full,” she says.

Sharing Hanh’s pleasure, hundreds of Hanoians also gather on weekend nights on tiny plastic stools around the Old Quarter and Ly Van Phuc Street, drinking beer and gnawing on claws. Ly Van Phuc is Hanoi’s “grilled chicken feet” street where shops are always cloudy with smoke from the grill and the area is packed with large groups drinking and chatting all night.

Vietnam has never treated chicken feet as a delicacy, unlike the Chinese, who name their dim sum staple ‘phoenix claw’. Instead, chicken feet are more of an appetizer, a beer snack, a time killer - the ultimate food for keen gnawers.

I was once told about a Vietnamese pop singer's obsession with chicken' feet by the manager of a restaurant she frequents.

“After her shows, she comes here and orders a plate of chicken feet for herself,” the manager chuckled. “While the rest of the team enjoy a feast of hotpot and chicken five ways, she’s just there, totally concentrating on her claws.”

So what’s the catch with chicken feet? Eastern medicine has long included the part as a good medicine for human joints, while beauty magazines like Elle have gone so far as to study the idea of ingestible collagen for better skin, two of the sources being bone broth and chicken feet.

There is not yet scientific evidence about either the health or beauty benefits of chicken feet, but in Vietnam, there’s a core answer to their massive popularity: the joy of gnawing. The chewy gelatinous tendons. Spicy, sweet and sour sauce. Eating without worrying about being too full.

Of course, in order for chicken feet to be a gnawing pleasure, sauces matter. Only a die-hard fan would touch a bland boiled foot. Vietnam’s chicken feet are largely inspired by the Chinese, yet the country has managed to come up with a few recipes of its own.

According to Nguyen Phuong Hai, an expert in Vietnamese cuisine, people along the central coast have long marinated their favorite snack in fish sauce, making the now popular chan ga chien mam. Chinese ethnic groups in the south invented ‘chan ga rang muoi’, the salty, deep-fried, crispy version flavored with lemongrass. Then there’s the ‘Chinese white phoenix claw’ which is marinated in vinegar, chili, kumquat and lemongrass.

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Chicken feet marinated in chili, vinegar, lemongrass and kumquat. Photo by VnExpress/Trang Bui

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Salty, deep-fried chicken cartilage with lemongrass. Photo by VnExpress/Trang Bui

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Chicken feet braised in fish sauce. Photo by VnExpress/Trang Bui

At home, my mom simply simmers the feet in fish sauce, dries the fat with tissue paper, breaks open the claws and serves. As soon as my brother gets a waft of his favorite snack, he abandons the TV and sprints towards the kitchen. I rarely compete with him when it comes to eating, but I find myself fighting tooth and claw for my own tasty treats.

The moment I start to go for a toe, my brother seizes the whole the bowl, yelling:

“But I like all the toes!” running away laughing with his bowl of golden, victorious chicken feet.

Due to frustrating lack of chicken feet and constant concerns about street food safety, Facebook became my unexpected salvation. Hanh, the claw master, assured me that clean, quick and 24/7 chicken feet businesses are thriving.

“I sell about 30-40 bags a day,” says the owner of Hana Lowcarb, a Facebook page dedicated to homemade Vietnamese delicacies like fish-sauced pork, smoked sausages and fried squid balls with nearly 50,000 page likes. I quickly added one more like and ordered two bags of chicken feet.

Sitting at home alone with a massive bowl of chicken feet, I felt like I'd reached the pinnacle of 'chicken feet pleasure', just like Hanh.

Two years ago, we both gave up on a mutual friend who had ventured into a different lifestyle that we could no longer share. Last month, that friend’s Facebook popped up again with mouth-watering pictures of freshly marinated bags. She sells chicken feet.

At the time, Hanh asked me: “Trang, did we really make a mistake unfriending her?”

Chicken feet destinations in Hanoi

- Hem Quan: 66 Hoang Cau & 360 Xa Dan

- Master Chef Restaurant: 404 Xa Dan

- Chan Ga Mat To: 23 Luong Ngoc Quyen

 
 
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