Practically meatless and spongy, you won't find chicken feet at the top of any most-appetizing lists, unless it's a dim-sum menu. Dim sum makes you think differently about chicken feet, or fung zao. You don't need a translation to know a chicken foot when you see it, but after frying, brining, braising, marinating and reducing, you might need one after you taste it.
Chicken feet touch nearly every distasteful thing on a farm or in a coop. You'll find numerous blemishes and nasty bits in the thick skin that needs removed. Keep the skin intact as much as possible when you clean and exfoliate. First, trim the tips of the toes just below the talons using kitchen shears. Next, cut out all the blemishes and foreign material from the feet and scrub them with kosher salt. Lightly moisten the feet with lemon juice while scrubbing to brighten the skin and make exfoliation easier.
You need an ice-cold brine ready to go before you deep the fry the chicken feet. Brining is the first step in flavoring, so use an array of aromatics and spices. Even after deep-frying, chicken feet are tough to penetrate with essence of flavor and aroma, so go aggressive with the spices. A tablespoon of kosher salt, three or four star anise pods, a cinnamon stick, a couple of pinches of Chinese five-spice, sliced ginger, six or seven chopped scallions, and half a head of crushed garlic work well. Add the spices to a food-safe container and fill it halfway with boiling water. After the water cools to room temperature, add 1/2 cup of Shaoxing wine and fill the container with ice.
Chicken feet undergo deep-frying, but not for crispness. In this technique, deep-frying heats the skin just enough to facilitate flavor assimilation through brining. Dry the feet with paper towels. Next, deep-fry the feet in oil heated to 350 degrees Fahrenheit in a heavy-bottomed pot for about 5 minutes. Expect splattering when you add the feet to the oil. Cover the pot slightly with the lid to keep it at a minimum or use a splatter guard. Transfer the feet to the icy brine immediately after frying them. Stir and chill the feet in the brine and keep them in the refrigerator for 2 hours.
When used for dim sum, chicken feet commonly undergo braising in a mixture of chicken stock and the same spices used in the brine. Simmer the feet for about 2 hours in enough stock and spices to cover.
Marinating and Reduction
The last step in preparation, marinating and reduction, are what ultimately transforms chicken feet from feral to flavorful. The marinade, which also serves as a sauce after reduction, doesn't require exact measurements and usually contains approximately equal parts Shaoxing wine, black-bean sauce, soy sauce, sugar, chopped garlic and oyster or fish sauce. Marinate the feet for 1 hour then cook the marinade for 5 minutes over medium heat; add 1/2 tablespoon each of cornstarch and water per cup. Cook the feet for 15 minutes, stirring frequently.