Images of hedonistic joy do not generally come to mind when pigs’ feet are mentioned to most Westerners, at least where the unfortunately uninitiated are concerned.
This is completely understandable, for once upon a time, way back in the dark ages, the charms of trotters were completely lost on me. I had tried them, once, at a German restaurant, where the chef had decided that they should be served whole and as tough as humanly possible. I did my best to wrestle with that foot, but the foot won. And for years after that, the idea that pigs’ feet were to be considered objects of drooling obsession honestly never even occurred to me.
But once you’ve tried them as they are done in China’s great gastronomic centers – particularly Guangdong and Jiangsu – you will forever be a convert. Suzhou in particular seems to have a serious knack for smoking porky bits like feet and tripe into culinary masterpieces. And I mean that with all sincerity.
It’s hard to describe just how intensely delicious smoked pigs’ feet are and how absolutely sensuous they are to eat, but I’ll try.
First off, the skin is like silk… smoky, luxurious silk. As soon as it touches my lips, I find it hard not to moan just a little bit. The skin is really what trotters are all about, because these feet are composed mainly of thick skin wrapped sensibly around a happy collection of bones and tendons, with just a touch of meat to hold things together. And when these feet are cooked correctly – and by that I mean that they are blanched properly, braised into utter submission, seasoned with gentleness, and then smoked into culinary nirvana – few things are better to munch on while contemplating how wonderful food can be.
Second, the tendons are gummy and insanely good when done right. I’ve given all sorts of recipes for tendons (like here and here), so you already know I have a bit of a mania for tendons. And I want you to get excited about this intensely Chinese love for sticky tendons, too. The more the merrier.
Like so many of my favorite dishes, this is more of an outline than jam-packed full of detailed directions on how to season it, because this really is all about the prep work. How you flavor it between the prep and the final smoking is something open to considerable interpretation. You can therefore play around with the middle part and find what makes you deliriously happy. And you should.
Xūn zhūjiăo 薰豬腳
6 whole pig’s feet or trotters, preferably free range and of the highest quality (see Tips), cut up by your butcher as directed below
Water, as needed
½ cup thinly sliced fresh ginger
6 green onions, trimmed but left whole
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
½ cup Shaoxing rice wine
1 piece of rock sugar, about the size of an egg
2 star anise
Half a stick of cinnamon
¼ cup raw rice, or more as needed
¼ cup sugar, or more as needed
¼ cup dry tea leaves, or more as needed
¼ cup dry Jamaica flowers, or more as needed, optional
1. Have your butcher use a band saw to slice each trotter in half lengthwise and then make 3 crosscuts, so that each foot ends up as 6 pieces. Clean the feet carefully, pat them dry with a paper towel, and poke around in the crevasses of the skin in search of hairs or anything else that requires your attention. Pluck out the hairs if there are only a few of them, or else use a disposable razor to shave your pig.
2. Place the feet in a pan, cover with water, and bring this to a full boil before lowering the heat to maintain a good simmer. Cook the feet for around 10 minutes to remove any impurities, and then rinse off the feet and pan. Cover them with fresh water, bring the water to a full boil again, and then simmer the feet until the skin feels soft and you can pierce through the thickest piece with a chopstick, topping off the pan with more boiling water as needed.
3. Add all of the sauce ingredients to the pan. Simmer the feet in this sauce until it is reduce to just half an inch (1 cm) or so at the bottom. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning as needed. Simmer things a bit further until most of the sauce has been absorbed, and then remove the pan from the heat. Cool the feet on a platter. You can make them ahead of time up to this point and refrigerate, too.
4. To smoke the pork, prepare a smoker as directed here. Spray the tray with oil. Smoke around half of the pieces at a time. (If your smoker is smaller, then smoke smaller amounts and adjust the smoking ingredients accordingly, using, say a third of the fuel at a time. You know what to do.) You don’t want to pack things in there, as otherwise the smoke will not be able to circulate freely. Turn the overhead fan on your stove up to high.
5. Place a half (or whatever) of the fuel into the bottom of the smoker, arrange the empty tray on top, cover the smoker, and set it over high heat. When smoke comes billowing out, arrange the right amount of pork on the tray, cover, lower the heat to medium, and smoke the feet for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat, but leave the smoker covered and on the burner. After about 15 minutes, check the pork: it should be a glorious mahogany brown and smell magnificent. If not, turn the pieces over, discard the old fuel, put in new fuel, and smoke it again. Repeat with the rest of the pork until all have been smoked. Serve the feet hot or slightly warm. This is fabulous with cold beer or a cocktail of your choosing.
Get your pigs’ feet from a really great butcher. If you don’t have a good relationship going with someone like that yet, now is the perfect time to start. You want a butcher who orders in whole or half animals for the shop, because then you’ll be able to ask for things like ears and feet and liver and so forth without getting too much pushback.
A really great butcher is someone who sells happy animals, or at least beasts that had many, many happy days and one really horrible one. (We all hope for that in the end for ourselves, too, don’t we?) Animals that are killed while they are stressed and terrified secrete their fear into their muscles, and that is not craziness speaking, it’s a fact. Get meat that was humanely raised and humanely butchered.
I always special order things like feet or pork belly with the skin on or fatback or whatever it is I want to cook with. Give your butcher a head’s up, as a week or so might be required to get them delivered. And make things worth your butcher’s while by being a steady customer who is nice and brings in friends.