Hi. It’s Matt, hopefully you remember me. I’ve been very inactive blogging for a while. Here are my excuses:
- I’ve been painting a lot. I hit a decent vein of ‘form’ with some paintings. So I’ve spent quite a lot of time working on that. If i feel creative, I have to prioritise painting over blogging. Sorry blogging.
- It’s harder to find weird. When I first arrived everything was weird. “Hey, wow, you can get beef flavoured sweets! Hey, wow, ‘duck bits’ are a more popular snack than crisps! Hey, wow, you can get preserved eggs for breakfast that look like the jellified black translucent output of a zombie chicken”. Now, the ‘once-weird’ is just my normal diet. When I’m peckish, no longer do I reach for a packet of crisps, i like packets of dried seaweed. Rather than toffee I eat tofu. Rather than gummi bears I eat bear gums. (I may have made up the last one). Anyway, this means my frame of reference has been normalised, so it’s hard for me to find noteworthy topics. I liken my quandry to that of a person from Sunderland who was brought up on our local delicacy of chips – with our recommended daily intake of fruit and veg usually being provided by squirtings of tomato ketchup. One day, I discover some mavericks covering their chips in cheese and red sauce. What!!?? No way! Now, I find this incredible and begin to regularly add cheese to my chips and ketchup. One year, I somehow end up in the bohemian town of Middlesbrough. Middlesbrough is about 20 minutes south of Sunderland (therefore 20 minutes closer to Vienna), so the chip chefs invented a fusion dish called ‘Parmoe’
which is chips, topped with cheese (like in Sunderland) but then doused in bechamel sauce (white sauce), and deep fried chicken schnitzel. The Sunderland native, seconded to the peculiar and alien world of Middlesbrough, would invariably be thrilled with his exciting new discovery, and amaze his mates back home with tales of this weird ‘white stuff’ all over his familiar chip bed. He would relish as his friends struggled to even comprehend this discovery: “Ah man, that’s not natural like.* The chemicals at that factory** must have turned the tomatoes white for them to get that weird sauce out of them”. However, over time he would find he actually preferred white sauce with the cheese and schnitzel, and though unhealthy, he would grow used to the variety of flavours as his palate developed, even preferring these new styles. The point being, it becomes harder to blog about weird stuff when you no longer see it as weird.
- I got too self indulgent. I tended to spend far too long on irrelevant and meandering preambles to the real content of my blog. Usually this felt like I would be shoehorning something extraneous into the blog, just to pad it out and disguise the fact that I don’t have the dilligence to do proper research, or the talent to do proper food reviews.
*I know we have readers from many different countries now, so this is a very soft representation of a north east accent. If you want to hear what a north east accent sounds like, watch an episode of Byker Grove or Geordie Shore.
**Middlesbrough was famous for having a large chemical factory which you could see clearly if you drove north up the A96.
Anyway, fortunately i’ve no more need of such excuses, and i’ve eaten some new things to talk about. So let’s get on with it:
The first time I ate chicken feet was in Birmingham. Em and I were presented with a plate of of 6-or-so; thin, bony, sad looking things laid out submissively and covered in a sweet gloop. They aren’t easy things to look at and subsequently eat; of all the bits of chicken, they’re probably the most anthropomorphic, resembling as they do tiny distorted, tortured hands. Once you get past all the unpleasantness of that, you remember that the knobbly thick skin can only be the foot coating of an animal that hasn’t yet evolved to develop and wear comfortable shoes.
Having once again done zero research, I was a little surprised to find that there was no actual meat content. I’d expected them to be a little bit like chicken wings. Bony, but with little sections of tasty meat that you can search for and gleefully excavate as part of a meaty treasure hunt. Not so. The stuff you eat is just the thick skin. I found it a little bit like trying to eat a thick washing up glove that was wrapped around a bunch of broken Ikea pencils. So I reasoned that maybe the idea was that the bit you’re meant to eat was the sauce. The foot is to the sauce what a wooden stick is to an ice lolly, if you will. The sauce wasn’t great (like coagulated Irn Bru), so we just left it and enjoyed the rest of our Dim Sum.
While I sat there thinking that this was one of the most needless and wasteful food vehicles I’d had since the fruit corner yoghurt, I couldn’t escape the feeling that i’d missed the point. After all, they aren’t a cliche; people really do eat them.
The second time I ate them, in a hotel near Changshu, China, they’d been soaked in a spicy vinegar so had a bit of a kick. This helped as the taste was enough to keep me interested and I had a colleague with me who could explain how to eat them properly.
My colleague explained that the thick skin occurs in clumps around the joints of the foot, while in the ball of the foot is the ‘best bit’ – the thickest bit of skin, as well as some translucent white stuff that is a combination of fat, tendons and gelatin. The skin is actually a lot like slightly undercooked pasta, and the ‘best bit’ was like eating a tiny fatty dumpling.
I prefer it to the chicken skin you get on a breast, thigh or wing. The last 18 months in China has made me much more comfortable with eating things like skin and tendons, so the second time I actually enjoyed them a lot more than the first.
Apparently it’s common to pair chicken feet with a beer. Because a foot has a lot of bones in it, eating these can be quite fiddly, so people like to eat them as conversational foods to give them something interesting and complicated to nibble on while drinking a beer and to give them a welcome excuse to dip in and out of boring conversation. Like Pistachio nuts or a Kinder egg.
Verdict: Better on second tasting, not entirely unpleasant and i’d eat them if they were put in front of me – but there’d have to be something seriously wrong with the rest of the menu for me to order them. Perhaps best tried at a buffet.
I love pork in China. It’s comfortably the most commonly consumed meat. While I was in the UK, most of my encounters with pork were either as bacon or slices of dried out pork shoulder at a Sunday carvery (slightly re-hydrated by smearing it with sweet apple sauce). In China, it turns up in everything (even deserts and sweets) and although often quite fatty, is almost always delicious. Some of the appeal seems to be the fat in pork, which serves two purposes that make it well suited to Chinese diets.
1. Fat is an energy source, which takes on a greater significance when you consider that there are many people here who’ve lived through less plentiful times.
2. Fat is soft. I don’t yet know why (maybe it’s that dental care is expensive), but many people like soft foods that are easy to eat without chewing, so anything that melts in the mouth is a good thing.
One lunchtime I was late to the table at a Taiwanese restaurant with my team and as I sat down they announced that they’d already ordered a healthy meal: Bitter melon and pork belly soup, deep fried pork ribs with sticky orange sauce, some sauteed greens and 4 pig feet. My face obviously communicated that I needed an explanation of ‘healthy’…
My team: “The bitter melon is good for your digestion. Greens have lots of vitamins. The ribs are good because they have bone in.”
Me: “What about the pigs trotters? Are they just like chicken feet but with way more fat and skin and bone in them?”
My team: “Yes. Ladies like them. They are good for your skin”
I decided that as they would be cooked Taiwanese style (usually a tasty combination of various sauces such as sesame oil, honey, rice wine) then would give them a go.
It turned out that I was right about the feet. They’re like a bigger version of chicken’s feet, albeit less scrawny and taste like pig rather than chicken. I didn’t like the skin, as it was far too rubbery in the way it’d been cooked and also highly fatty. Apparently the bit the ladies like (for skin purposes) is a bit of connective tissue in the middle of the trotter. If you imagine the trotter as a giant piggy whelk, and you aren’t eating the shell, but poking around with a toothpick for a mollusc inside the shell, that’s the basic idea (this tissue part actually tasted ok). The others were quite happy to chomp away on some of the gelatin too, but I prefer my gelatin in wine gum format.
Emma’s blogged about the food in Xi’an. It is great, especially if you like lamb. We had many delicious meals here and on our last night we went to a place to try and revisit some of our favourites.
Fortunately, unlike many restaurants in Xi’an, they had an English menu.
Unfortunately, the English menu was about as helpful as the norovirus. It read:
- Lamb – 25 RMB
- Lamb – 30/52 RMB
- Lamb – 20 RMB
- Lamb (Spicy) – 18 RMB
- Lamb – 30RMB
- Sprite – 8 RMB
It reminded me of the classic Monty Python sketch:
- “Egg and Bacon”
- “Egg, Sausage and Bacon”
- “Egg and Lamb”
- “Egg, Bacon and Lamb”
- “Egg, Bacon, Sausage and Lamb”
- “Lamb, Bacon, Sausage and Lamb”
- “Lamb, Egg, Lamb, Lamb, Bacon and Lamb”
- “Lamb, Lamb, Lamb, Egg and Lamb”
- “Lamb, Lamb, Lamb, Lamb, Lamb, Lamb, Baked Beans, Lamb, Lamb, Lamb and Lamb”
- “or Lobster Thermidor au Crevette with a Mornay sauce garnished with truffle pate, brandy and a fried egg on top and lamb”
Like the man in that skit, we quite like Lamb, so we played lamb roulette and pointed out few dishes.
The first thing to arrive was lamb kidneys skewered on a twig and covered in spices. Liked these a lot. Second, Jackpot, we got the delicious lamb & bread broth that Emma wrote about. Then came twig skewered chunks of succulent barbecued lamb meat. 3 wins out of 3. I was on a roll, eagerly awaiting the 4th success….
Then we got a plate of lamb feet.
I never knew lamb feet were a thing. Of course I know lamb have feet (they aren’t snakes) but I didn’t expect them to be a meal choice for humans at a relatively nice-looking restaurant. It felt a little bit like we’d been served the sub-prime mortgage derivative of the barbecue world – this restaurant had figured out a way to disguise a valueless byproduct of real food by covering it in sauce and sesame seeds, making the menu unclear, then selling it to unsuspecting consumers.
The good bit about lamb feet (compared to chicken and pig) is that there is a bit of lamb flavour to it. That’s pretty much it though, the rest of it is just tough skin, fat, gristle and gristly skin fat. On a stick. If you want lamb flavour, just get some lamb. I don’t know how much the feet were, but everything else was a better option. These were comfortably the worst feet of the three, with pig second. Having written this blog in this order and not bothered to edit it, I’ve now become nostalgic for the chicken feet by comparison and i’ll more than likely eat them again.
To close this blog, I thought i’d try something different and write a little poem.
Ah how I respect the noble foot or, plural, feet.
Designed to stop our legs from scraping along the street.
Of all the body parts the most discreet,
No matter how much abuse and how much we mistreat
They support us, daily, never missing a beat.
Yes I do respect them; but without deceit
I never thought i’d eat.
As a treat.
There’s just so little meat.
My meal is not complete.
I have tasted de-feet.