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January 7, 2009

Ready for the chicken feet challenge?

Go on, give Jade Palace's chicken feet a try

So my wife Mary and I settled right in at Jade Palace on a brisk Sunday afternoon. Our foodie friend Stephen Dennison was to join us, but those speedy dim sum carts wouldn’t wait.

Peeking and pointing, we filled our table with the Chinese snacks we like best — har gao and siu mai dumplings; char siu bao stuffed steamed bread; lou mai gai chicken and rice in lotus leaves; and lots more.

Then the friendly Chinese guy with the big smile threw out a challenge: “Chicken feet?”

I paled. I love authentic fare and I’m adventurous, as is my bride. Still … chicken feet? I hadn’t gone there yet, and wasn’t sure I wanted to do so this day. “Maybe later,” I said. He winked. “Maybe next generation,” he chortled, moving on.

That did it. My competitive spirit afire, I jumped up, ready to chase the cart, when Stephen came in. I told him the story and he was right on it. Chicken feet it would be, and plenty of them. We got them, we ate them, we liked them. Pretty much. And the Chinese guy seemed impressed.

I’ll now invite Stephen, who’s on the bar staff at the soon-to-open Z’s Fusion, to take over the tale:

A chicken feet primer

Modern chefs are bringing a variety of meats back to the formal dinner table, returning to the ancient virtues of hoof-to-snout cookery. This historic culinary approach tames the naughty bits: the thymus, kidneys, stomach … even testicles.

In prehistoric times, necessity forced the use of every part of the animal. One never knew when the next meal would come along. Also, to waste any part could insult the animal’s sacrifice and might incur the wrath of an angry animal spirit.

Human culture has evolved, and many today prefer not to dwell on where their food comes from. Fortunately, though, the old ways have been preserved in peasant cultures and remain a favorite among gourmands.

The Chinese, the world’s oldest civilization, have never lost their love affair with these foods. Peasant cooking still plays an important role in the culinary mainstream.

Chicken feet demonstrate this truth. Tons of them go down the hatch daily in teahouses and street stalls across China. In Louisville, Jade Palace prepares an excellent example.

Ready to try? Look no further, fellow adventurer.

Tough or sinewy meats need to be prepared by low temperature, slow cookery or by a combination of cooking techniques: Jade Palace fries and chills chicken feet, then simmers them until meat, tendon and skin pull away from the bone and absorb the cooking liquid.

They are served au naturel, glistening and retaining their shape, clearly recognizable as, well, what they are. Jade Palace presents them in a white earthenware bowl in a small metal steamer.

We recommend eating them with your hands and chopsticks as the Chinese do. Hold a foot securely and pull the meat from the bone with your front teeth. Chew softly, watching for the tiny, cylindrical bones. Transfer them discreetly to your plate as you would an olive pit.

The grossout factor is all in your head. Chicken feet aren’t much different than chicken wings. What’s challenging about that?

Take a chance, step outside your comfort zone. Dip them in dark chili-garlic sauce or light star anise and onion sauce and enjoy.

Your happy experience may heighten your appreciation for the ancient art of

hoof-to-snout cooking. Soon you’ll be looking for more new rivers to cross. Twice-fried pork intestines or fish eyeballs, anyone?

Jade Palace

1109 Herr Lane

425-9878

www.jadepalacelouisville.com