Culinary Escapade of a Tourist
MANY ASIANS HAVE A LONGSTANDING AND VERY PUBLIC FOOT Fetish - our ancestors have been infatuated with them for centuries. Far from telling us not to put our feet on the table, until today, our taste buds continue to be entertained by certain animal feet that provide us with the delicate trio of skin, cartilage, and bone.
It was that time of the year in the state capital city of Kuching the locals call the “landas” or rainy season. The sky was beginning to darken, as cumulonimbus clouds gathered in the distance. Our quest today, as a small group of international culinarians, was to sample a variety of savoury dishes – all of them consisting of feet. We traveled along Jalan Kuching-serian to our appointment with a seasoned chef who has been a local ambassador for Hong Kong.
Braised Duck Feet with Sea Cucumber
Chinese cooking for over four decades. and from what we had been told, the man knows his feet! Before long, we arrived in the town of siburan, located approximately 17 miles south of Kuching, a town anchored by a rather large and contemporary-designed mall called the eastern Mall. located in the back end of the mall compound, we spotted a beige building that wore a large sign announcing Wei Thian Restaurant.
Soon we were greeted by the owner, Mr eugene hu and the chef himself. Originally born in pulau pinang, chef Kong chi Kee greeted us with an infectious smile and charming modesty. chef Kong first entered the culinary world in his early 20s as a kitchen assistant in a local restaurant in his hometown. his culinary skills were later honed by a Master chef from the renowned Mandarin hotel in hong Kong. Not uncommon in those days, chef Kong learned under strictest of conditions, as his mentor selectively and painstakingly passed on kitchen secrets to his students. chef Kong recalls the unforgiving, sink-or-swim learning environment; the master chef often insisted his mentees sit in what the master sarcastically termed, the “Vip chair”, for students to just sit and observe. chef Kong passed training, and that was the beginning of a life that took him internationally to hong Kong, taiwan and New Zealand. he finally settled down in sarawak almost 30 years ago and has since cooked at famous iconic landmarks in Kuching such as the hilton hotel and lok Thian Restaurant, before recently being appointed head chef at lok Thian’s sister restaurant, Wei Thian.
Chefs are known for their philosophies when it comes to cooking, and chef Kong is no different. Now in this 60s, his approach towards cooking is simple. he stated enigmatically: “customers can’t eat not because you can’t cook,” as he gazed into the distance. Faced with my blank stare as i tried to decipher the deeper philosophical meaning of his statement, chef Kong smiled and explained further: “i still remember, while i lived in New Zealand, i cooked curry chicken in my restaurant the old-fashioned way with coconut milk and so on. But there were only a few customers. My competition was more successful. One day, i tried what my competitor was cooking, and realized that the curry was cooked differently.
Braised Chicken Feet with Pacific Clam: Feet... Glorious Feet...
GETTING COLD FEET in HOW-TO
prepare chicken feet and produce that signature soft and fluffy skin? Here are some insights, courtesy of Chef Kong.
– Clean chicken feet and clip off nails
– Pad dry– In hot oil, deep fry chicken feet until golden brown
– Immediately submerge fried chicken feet in cold water to soak. Soak for at least a day to remove smell and hydrate skin.
– Prepare marinade (Chef Kong uses classic flavors like oyster sauce and soy sauce)
– Over a low heat, steam chicken feet in marinade for at least 8 hours before serving
Farmed Crocodile Feet stewed in Claypot
Chicken Feet Fun Facts
– Chicken Feet is not only consumed throughout Asia, but local dishes can be found as far as Trinidad and Tobago, Russia, Eastern & Western Europe, Jamaica, South Africa, and South America.
– Chicken Feet nutritional values: 61% fats, 20% protein, 0% carbs.
– One ounce (28.4 grams) of chicken feet contains 26 milligrams of Cholesterol and 61 Calories.
– Eating too much chicken feet can increase blood pressure.
– Researchers at a Taiwanese University confirmed chicken feet are good alternative sources for collagen.
– The United States exports nearly 300 metric tons of chicken feet to China every year.
They used regular milk, and all other exotic ingredients were toned down or omitted. Though the dish was not prepared in the traditional sense, it resonated with the customers’ taste. so i adapted to the local palate and soon business began to improve.” it was then i realized that chef Kong’s approach to cooking was not about what he wanted the food to taste like, but what his customer preferred; he had in fact understood the fundamentals of customer-centricity, a common business concept, and to this day the chef claims that this philosophy remains a core business strategy in his professional career. he continues to enjoy spending time in his restaurant’s dining rooms and getting feedback from customers about the taste and quality of his food, and is ever willing to tweak his flavours to suit the customers’ preferences.
Finally, the food arrived at our table and our culinary adventure had officially begun. The theme of the lunch was not your typical set course meal, but an array of vegetable and meat dishes, with feet being the central theme.
First of the fiddly feet dishes was duck feet, braised with a soy sauce, topped with sea cucumber and chinese mushrooms. The larger webbing in duck feet provides added satisfaction for those craving the soft skin that falls gently off the bones. taken together with the sides of sea cucumber and chinese mushrooms, the blend of flavor and texture was exquisite.
Then came perhaps the more popular sister dish - chicken feet. Known around the world, the chicken feet dish is perhaps the most favorite and commonly used initiation dish to the world of dim sum cuisine. like its sister dish, it is visually aggressive and impactful, yet to the discerning palate, it is a dish that represents a harmonious blend of cartilage, skin and bones. according to chef Kong, the attraction of eating feet can be attributed to the therapeutic nature of the cartilage on muscle joints and skin - one of the main reasons why chicken and duck feet remain a popular dish today. For us feet foodies, we relish how soft and fluffy the chicken or duck skin as it comes apart from the bone and cartilage, and how gelatinous the cartilage is. as the chicken skin is drawn away from the bones, a quick spoonful of the sauce provides the right experience to fully enjoy this dish. chef Kong was kind enough to share a little of his closely guarded secret on how to prepare chicken feet for those of us ex-pats who live in countries where good chicken feet dishes may be hard to find and we have to resort to D.i.Y. solutions. he stressed that the process usually takes days to complete.
While we were quite contented with our meal thus far, nothing could prepare us for what was coming up: the star ‘feet’ dish of the day - crocodile feet! encased in a traditional clay pot with a heavy lid, the dish took center stage in the lazy susan. The lid was lifted and what lay beneath in the smoke-filled pot was a brown colored dish, full of the aroma of ginger and scallions. We paused in shock. some of us savoured the moment, while others were clearly less enthusiastic and perhaps anxious about the dish. somehow, the image of dinosaur-like skin and sharp claws hadn’t seemed very appealing when the news first broke out. But this was no time to get cold feet! This was the main mission, even if this dish was certainly not for the faint-hearted! The braver ones extended their chopsticks while others looked on with a keen eye. The first bite was taken, the second, the third and before long everyone had had a taste, the anxiety around the table subsided and we were at ease with the dish. While i won’t reveal what it actually tastes like, i will say that it bears no resemblance to chicken or duck feet in texture.
Curious about crocodile feet? try them for yourself. it’s a culinary experience you won’t soon forget. You might even be swept off your feet!
Terence Lao dabbles in writing and music when he takes a break from his professional career in Business and Finance. A native of Kuching, Terence enjoys eating everything Asian, but surprisingly, his son, who was born and raised in Canada, started to eat chicken feet at a young age of five! Chicken feet remains a staple dish every time the family enjoys a dim sum lunch in the many countries they have lived in.
Chef Kong Chi Kee showing off his "catch of the day"