Chicken Feet and Chopsticks: The Chinese Dining Experience

July 20, 2012 • Blogs, Summer 2012 Blog • Views: 1068

by Kelsey Larson

My first experience with Chinese fine dining came when my host family invited me to join them and one of my host father’s co-workers or a meal at a restaurant. The differences from American dining began immediately with the transport to the restaurant. Traffic bears no resemblance to the orderly, wave-at-your-neighbor pattern of my Montana hometown. Instead, it is a car-eats-bike racing derby, where running a red light hardly earns a honk, turn signals are optional, and seatbelts are discouraged. On the bright side, it does add a certain appreciation to the following meal just because you survived to eat it.

The restaurant itself, however, was fully worth the risk of life and limb. The place gleamed, light glinting from rare woods, delicate artwork, and shimmering glass. The waiters and waitresses politely murmured welcomes towards us, confining their stares at the American to only a couple flicks of their eyes. They led us up a sweeping staircase, past a small indoor coy pool and water feature, and to a small private room off to the side, a common accomodation for larger groups. Once we were seated, my host father and his friend lit up cigarettes, glanced at the menu, and checked off a list of foods to be placed on the lazy susan dominating the table. I settled back to enjoy the ride.

Each dish, brought out one at a time, showed a new explosion of color. Meats dripping with elaborate sauce, slices of rice-filled, crisp-crusted Chinese pie, bright green and unfamiliar beans: The dishes piled up one after another, and I set out to try them all. As we slowly spun the lazy susan, I munched my way through countless unfamiliar foods, wrestling with my chopsticks to snatch them up, or
(more frequently) flip them through the air onto my lap or the tablecloth. As I sampled steamed pumpkin, roasted fish, and peanuts served in a sweet sauce, I tried to figure out the identity of one newly-arrived dish: a white, nobbly tangle lightly sauced. A root? Some sort of squid? Then the Lazy Susan turned, and I saw the small nails on the curved toes, and some gear clicked into place.Chicken
feet, I realized. Pickled, intact, chicken feet.

The reasonable part of me pointed out that it was just the feet of a chicken, a bird that I had eaten several times a week since I was old enough to chew. It wasn’t really any more gross than eating its muscle. Anyways, my hosts were eating it, and they were fine. Why wouldn’t I be? However, with somewhat less cool rationality, I knew that my American brain (and, more importantly, stomach) wasn’t ready for it. If I tried to eat it, I either wouldn’t be able to bite, wouldn’t be able to swallow, or at least would embarrass everyone with
my facial expression.

A Chinese meal (Kelsey Larson).

As I enjoyed the squid, the whole prawns, and the sound effects to my host sister’s anecdotes, I kept a careful eye on the chicken feet. Like most dishes at the table, it was never entirely emptied: the family had ordered enough to feed fifteen, not ten. I kept the lazy
susan turning as the chicken feet, pushed by countless new dishes, slid toward the center of the table and away from me.

After the watermelon dessert came the process of negotiating the bill. The two hosts both fervently protested their ability to pay, turning into a shouting match. Women, small children, and the exchange student were ushered out of the room as the protests grew louder. Glancing over my shoulder, I could see his coworker attempting to forcibly shove money back into my host father’s pocket. We waited outside for about five minutes until the two came out, suddenly friends again.  Chinese culture, I learned, encourages putting as much passion into paying more at group dinners as into paying less at anything else.

Chicken feet avoided, chopsticks managed, conversations navigated: eating at the restaurant was a crash course in Chinese culture for me. As we dodged a bike and swerved between two trucks, I realized that I was slowly starting to understand how to live in the culture I had already learned to respect and admire. Maybe, even, by the time I leave for America, I will have tasted (and swallowed) my first bite of chicken feet.

Kelsey Larson ’16 is in Silliman College.  Contact her at kelsey.larson@yale.edu.

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