Chicken Feet – Finger Licking in Laos

I hopped on the ordinary train from Bangkok to the end of the line at Nong Kai. But that was not my destination. I was heading to the place that’s after the end of the line, in more ways than one. To cross the Mekong River from Thailand into Laos is to cross time and consciousness more than space. Crammed into the middle of the Indochina peninsula, it is a place the world passes by. Though the geography is vastly different–rainforest and tropical floodplain rather than craggy, inhospitable desert–it reminds me very much of Baja California. Few roads lead here; few airlines fly in. Nothing ever happens here, and nothing needs to happen. All is complete and satisfactory. The old French colonial administration called it the Land of the Lotus Eaters. I call it Baja Indochina: the Land After the End of the Line.

Four million people inhabit Laos, a lush and fertile land the size of France. The first time I was here, a local expat described the character of the Lao people as lazy. “But look around,” he said. “If it’s green, it’s salad. If it moves, it’s protein. They just have to bend down and pick it up. You’d be lazy too.”

I am here for two reasons: to rest and relax before pushing off to the intensity of India, and to learn how to cook the local fare. Lao cuisine is unique. It’s as supple as water in its ability to accept new influences and ingredients, yet durable as time in maintaining its essential character. The blending of spices is an art receiving the same attention the Japanese give to flower arranging. Rich, smooth sauces and curries, grilled meats and fish, an abundance of salads, spicy condiments, and glutinous rice are its hallmarks. And the Lao eat more raw food and more wild foods than any other people I know. But cookery here is a private art. Secret recipes are common. Both high-born ladies and peasant women compete for local culinary fame, but they rarely reduce their recipes to writing. This is the only sophisticated cuisine I know of that is virtually devoid of cookbooks. I am hoping, eventually, to fill that void, lest a cultural treasure be lost.

I lunched today at the morning market. (They call it that even though it goes  on all day.) There’s a stall in the southeast corner run by a woman who last year dubbed me Mr. Beer (or “Mistah Bia,” in the local accent) for my taste for the brew at breakfast. Yes, at breakfast! Hey, it’s hot here, the food is salty, and I don’t have to drive, think, or operate machinery.

When I showed up today, the Mrs. took one look at me, turned to her daughter, and smiled “Bia,” and the daughter fetched a cold one. Madam then turned to making one of my favorites here in Laos: Som Tam. It’s a spicy, tangy salad made from julienned green papaya tossed with chile, garlic, lime, tomatoes, and fish sauce. Then it’s pounded a bit in a large mortar to release all the flavors and juices. It’s very cleansing on the palate and a perfect foil for rich sauces or grilled meats. As this was going on, I turned my eyes to Madam’s supply of skewered chicken, pork, fish and stuff I couldn’t identify. All had been previously grilled and needed only reheating on the charcoal brazier. I pointed to one in the shadowy corner that looked like the strips of marinated pork I had enjoyed on previous occasions, but as my good lady of the grill placed the skewer on the fire, I noticed little appendages on each piece of meat that looked rather like legs.

It occurred to me that what I had just ordered was tree frogs on a stick, a common item of diet here. I wasn’t too alarmed, as I’d enjoyed stuffed frogs for dinner only the night before. But for last night’s entree, the heads, guts, and skins had all been removed and the frog had been stuffed with a delicious force meat, rolled in spices and fried in a rich oil. Tree frogs on a stick, though, come to the table unaltered except by fire.

I thought of changing my order, but nobody at the market spoke English and I no Lao. Also, by this time I had attracted a small crowd of goggle-eyed children who had apparently never seen a blue-eyed demon at table, and I didn’t want them to think I was a wus. Besides, rats and bats on a stick are also common here; I figured I was getting off easy with frogs.

Madam’s daughter turned the little beasties once more, then deskewered them onto a plate and set them before me. Frogs I was prepared for, but what I got was chicken feet! Marinated, grilled, scratch-at-the-ground chicken feet. The heel and toe, claw, instep and ankle of the common barnyard chicken is esteemed a tasty treat throughout Southeast Asia. I have even seen them offered in the snack bars of movie theaters; I tell no lie.

I always knew that someday I would face this moment, but I never relished it. Funny, isn’t it, that I who would eat anything should quake at the sight of chicken feet. I who have supped on soup made of ant larvae, quaffed bowls of blood, dined on dogs and chewed through the guts of animals unknown. Not that I am an indiscriminate eater, mind you. My food must be artfully prepared and presented with care. But I’ve long boasted that I would eat anything on legs except a table and anything with wings but an airplane. Somehow chicken feet never appealed.

And now my gastronomic bravado was coming home to roost. Madam set the “Som Tam” in front of me and daughter brought forth sticky rice. Excellent Lao beer had been well chilled and poured into a frozen mug that had been resting under pounds of ice as though in anticipation of my arrival. The wide-eyed children seemed to hold their breath as though the thought had occurred to them that the big, sweaty “farang might prefer the profane feast of a tender Lao child to the undisputed and civilized delicacy of chicken feet.

Their watchful parents ogled sidelong. I sniffed. The aroma of BBQ chicken was unmistakable. No toe-jam smells or athlete’s-foot odors obtained. I looked closely at the curled digits and saw that few talons remained. Whether they had burned off on the grill or been extracted for herbal medicines I don’t know. With thoughts of foot fetishes ajumble in my mind, I lifted one to my mouth, and as the children gawked, I gnawed. Dare I say it was finger-lickin’ good? It tasted better than anything I ever bought from the Colonel. He should take lessons.

Of course there isn’t much meat on a hen’s foot, or a cock’s either for that matter. You might get two swallows if you’re a lady; one for a gentleman or a rogue. They’re like pickled pig’s feet: You nibble them for their flavor, not their nourishment. They provide much gustatory satisfaction with virtually no calories. And when you’re finished, you can do as I did: use the toenails to pick your teeth.

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