"The ghoulish shade of its skin, so unlike the golden-brown hue that we associate with a perfectly roasted bird, appeared more macabre than appetizing."
I learned to speak English by watching a lot of old movies. Carey Grant and Gregory Peck made for excellent speech coaches; their flowing cadence and precise diction were plenty instructive for a first grader. By the time I was in second grade, I had covered most of Alfred Hitchcock's films, save for one: The Birds, that 1963 classic in which a coastal village is assailed by droves of murderous, eye-pecking birds. Maybe I should have waited to watch that particular movie because it left an indelible mark on my impressionable 6-year-old brain. Decades later, I'd like to say that I can stroll down the street without cringing at a group of pecking pigeons, but that would be a lie. I will walk blocks just to avoid them, and birds of any kind with sharp beaks are even worse.
In culinary terms, my bird phobia comes with fairly mild repercussions. Whole ducks and geese are therapeutic to work with; their rounded beaks, like the elegant curves of a ship's hull, sport complacent smiles. On the other hand, chicken heads have always frightened me. In Chinese markets I forgo the birds with their sharp, beady heads and their fiery red combs, instead making a beeline for the trotters and tails.
But no longer! What kind of nasty bits columnist would I be if I didn't embrace everything offal? Finally, this weekend I conquered my fears with the help of one black chicken and many, many duck feet. The webby feet were present for reassurance and familiarity, but it was the black chicken, whole and unaltered, that commanded my attention.
Also called cockscombs or crests, the chicken's comb crowned a pointy black head ending in a perilously sharp beak. Its eyelids were closed; still, the head, so perfectly intact, and its body, resplendent in a deep shade of inky bluish-black, animated the entire fowl. For a minute I paused and stared down at the chicken, unsure if I could touch its beak. Slowly, I reached over and clasped the head. The beak was smooth and hard like my fingernail and the head felt rubbery in the palm of my hand.
The Chinese are a fairly superstitious bunch. In the face of all scientific evidence or suggestion, shark's fin, bird's nest, and all sorts of pulverized horns and bones are prized for their medicinal value. Black chicken is considered infinitely more nutritious than yellow, and my family members insist that it is better-tasting as well. Still, the ghoulish shade of its skin, so unlike the golden-brown hue that we associate with a perfectly roasted bird, appeared more macabre than appetizing.
I grabbed my heavy carbon-steel cleaver and with one sure swipe, beheaded the chicken at the base of its neck. The lopped-off head rolled a few times on the wooden board, looking significantly less menacing off its body. Having dispensed with the most frightening part, the rest of the chopping went quickly. Being so dark, the chicken sported feet that looked more like hawkish talons. Soon, I'd separated the chicken into useful sections, ready to be cooked with the duck feet. Unlike the plump appendages of chicken, duck feet are lean and bony with webbing prized in Chinese cuisine for its partly gelatinous, partly elastic texture.
Instead of stewing the chicken and duck's feet, I steamed them gently in the broth of shiitake mushrooms, interlaced with ginger and green onions. This dish is a tribute to my mother, who first familiarized me with the feel of raw poultry. When I was younger, she countered my distaste by shoving my hand into the cavity of a whole bird—certainly an effective, albeit somewhat blunt, method of acclimation. My mother frequently steamed chicken with shiitake mushrooms, and the resulting broth was deeply concentrated and soothing. A homey offering, the sum of poultry with shiitake is greater than its parts; best of all, the dish requires little prep work and few ingredients.
The duck's feet, being the toughest of the bunch, went into the pot first, followed by the pieces of black chicken. During the last 15 minutes on the stove, I added the reconstituted mushrooms from which the broth had come. The resulting soup was heady, soothing, and as poultry-intensive as could be. Perfumed with the essence of both chicken and duck, the dish was fragrant enough to be the stand-alone entry for the night, nestled on a bed of white noodles. (For a less exciting but still delicious rendition, use only chicken and shiitake mushrooms, doing without the more luxurious duck feet.)
Sitting down at the table, I fetched the chicken's head from the pot and plopped it into my bowl of noodles. There wasn't much in the way of good eating around the eyeballs, but the neck was juicy and tender, with plenty of meat around the long and bony structure. When I had finished my meal, the head lay stripped on the table - the beak, still black and pointy, no longer posed the menacing presence it had for most of my life.
Chicken and Duck Feet Steamed with Shiitake
- 1 whole chicken, preferably with head and feet still attached
- 1 pound duck feet, nails clipped
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons rice wine, such as Shaoxing or sake
- 6 dried shiitake mushrooms
- 2 cups water
- A few 2-inch long segments of green onion, plus more green onion, thinly sliced, to top
- 6 to 8 thin slices of ginger
To prepare the chicken: Wash the chicken and clip its nails if the feet are intact. Remove the head and neck with one chop at the base of the neck. Remove the feet with one chop to each spindly leg. Halve the chicken lengthwise; then separate it into the wings, legs, and thighs. For the body, chop the chicken into 3- or 4-inch pieces.
Bring a pot of water to a vigorous boil. Place the chicken and the duck feet into the water and boil rapidly for 30 seconds or so to remove any impurities. Strain the pieces of poultry and set aside.
Meanwhile, soak the dried shiitake mushrooms in 2 cups of cold or lukewarm water. When the mushrooms have been reconstituted, remove them from the broth and reserve the broth for later use. Cut the mushrooms into half-inch sections.
Set up a bowl or insert to be placed inside your steamer or wok. Place the duck feet into the bowl, along with the mushroom broth and the pieces of ginger. Bring the water at the base of the vessel to boil, with the bowl or insert already in place.
Steam the duck feet for 15 minutes; add the pieces of chicken. Steam the chicken and duck feet for 40 minutes more. Finally, add the pieces of shiitake mushroom and the green-onion segments, and steam for a final 15 minutes.
Carefully remove the hot bowl from the steamer and quickly skim off the fat at the surface of the broth. Top with some thinly sliced green onions. Serve immediately, accompanied by rice or noodles.