Chicken feet are exactly what they sound like: the feet of a chicken. When detached from the chicken, they are considered a culinary delicacy in some regions of the world, most notably in China and South Africa. This ingredient has also played a role in the cuisines of Eastern Europe and the American South, where people often come up with creative ways to use offal, ensuring that every part of the animal is utilized to its fullest potential.
A glance at your own feet will give you an idea of what's involved in chicken feet: a series of small bones, tendons and skin. They do not have very much muscle, and they are also extremely high in collagen, so they tend to cook down into a gelatinous mass, with the tendons and skin adding a chewy texture. The high collagen, incidentally, makes them great for skin, hair, and nails, if consumed in large quantities.
Most recipes for chicken feet involve slowly stewing them to extract their flavor and to tenderize them. Consumers eat the feet whole, spitting out the small bones along the way; learning to eat them properly can take some time, as it is difficult to eat them without accidentally swallowing the bones. Spitting out bones in a dainty fashion is also difficult to do, especially if you crack them in your teeth to extract the marrow first.
In China, chicken feet are commonly on the menu at many dim sum restaurants as “phoenix talons,” and the menu may also include duck feet. They are also sold as street food, often deep fried, in other parts of Asia. Many cooks swear by chicken feet as an ingredient in soup stock, arguing that they increase the gelatin content, and make the stock richer and more flavorful.
Obtaining chicken feet can be a challenge, depending on where you live. Boutique butchers are often willing to sell them, and they can also be found fresh and frozen at Chinese markets. In regions where they prove especially hard to find, consumers can order the food directly through merchants who will ship frozen chicken feet.
Before you use chicken feet in a recipe, you should blanch them in hot water for around five minutes to remove impurities. You should also trim the toe tips off, along with especially thick calluses on the skin.