Live and learn: what’s the difference between “chicken feet” and “chicken paws”?

December 2, 2019 • 10:45 am

Don’t expect any deep thinking (if I’m even capable of that!) for a few days; I’m tired and am experiencing PASS, Post-Antarctic Stress Syndrome. A post like this is all I’m capable of today.

When I was grocery shopping yesterday, I was stopped in my tracks in the meat department by these packages of CHICKEN PAWS.  They are, of course, chicken feet, not paws, and most people abjure them no matter what they’re called?. But I like chicken feet, mainly when they’re cooked Chinese style with black beans, ginger, and soy sauce.

But of course I wondered about the “paws” bit. Chickens don’t have paws, but feet and wings. I figured there were only two possible reasons for calling these “paws”:

a. It was a joke, perhaps with the humor injected to make people buy them, or

b. It was a euphemism to make people less resistant to buying something labeled “chicken feet”.  When I take people to dim sum and order chicken feet, most of my guests, disgusted, won’t even try them. Often the reason seems to be that the feet spent their (short) lives walking around the farmyard. (Actually, they barely walk, as the poor beasts are confined in cages.) Yes these same people eat eggs with gusto, and we know where eggs come from!

Well, a bit of Googling showed that there’s some confusion about “feet” versus “paws”. For example, the site Seasoned Advice, citing a USDA site that doesn’t exist, says this, giving a photo:

The chicken paw on the left does not have as much of the lower leg as the chicken foot on the right.

While the difference may seem subtle to many people, it’s apparently very important to consumers in China:

Most premium jumbo paws are sold in wholesale markets and eventually make their way into high-end restaurants. Smaller paws, chicken wings, and wing tips, in addition to being sold at wholesale markets, end up at wet markets and processing plants, which use them in finished food products.

The market for chicken feet is more varied than that of premium chicken paws; larger chicken feet are sold to both wholesale and retail markets and are more commonly used for family consumption (and in barbecue stores), small feet are typically further cooked in processing plants. Chinese consumers in the Northwest and Northeast tend to favor chicken feet over chicken paws.

This implies that there is a USDA distinction between chicken paws, which have more leg, and chicken feet, which just have the “fingers”.  But some people like “jumbo paws” better than “chicken feet”! Go figure.

But the USDA itself says this:

Are “poultry feet” and “poultry paws” the same?

Published 03/13/2007 09:47 AM   |    Updated 04/03/2018 09:54 AM

The country requirements provide requirements for poultry feet but this plant produces poultry paws – are the requirements the same?

No standard of identify exists for either poultry feet or poultry paws. FSIS Directive 6210.2, which outlines production procedures for poultry paws to make the product eligible for the mark of inspection uses the term “poultry feet” exclusively.  If the plant is following 6210.2, and using the product name “[poultry] paws,” they should be able to defend the use of that name according to industry standards.  For determination of eligibility for export, the terms “paws” and “feet” would be regarded as the same product.

The FSIS directive link doesn’t work, either, but I found it at this site and, sure enough, it doesn’t mention “poultry paws” (the four-page directive tells inspectors how to inspect poultry feet).

But Moe’s Meats says this:

What’s the difference between chicken feet and chicken paws? They [chicken paws] are similar to chicken feet except they do not contain part of the lower leg. They literally are only the foot (aka paw) of the chicken. This means they will contain less glucosamine and collagen than chicken feet, but are still a good choice for pets.

So the difference appears to be an unofficial but conventionally understood distinction between the two “preparations”.  “Paws” are equivalent to “mittens” that cover the hands and not the lower arms.  Remember that the next time you’re looking for chicken feet (I bet only at most 0.1% of readers buy them).

Still, as a petulant biologist I object to the use of the word “paws” to refer to the pedal extremities of fowls. Why not “short feet” and “long feet”?



29 thoughts on “Live and learn: what’s the difference between “chicken feet” and “chicken paws”?

  1. Not to step on the story about feet and paws, I recall having a chicken foot in a bowl of soup while eating in Japan. I ate the soup but passed on the foot. I know the old saying about the pig – they save everything but the squeal but I could not go for the chicken foot.

  2. There’s all sorts of names for chicken wings now too. There’s “party wings” that are already cut up, there are “drummets” which are just the upper wing and “flats” which are the lower wing with the double bone, ulna/radius. I like flats myself.

    Chicken feet are a key ingredient for a good chicken broth. Lots of collagen and cartilage makes for a rich broth that is gelatinous when chilled. And they’re cheap!

    1. I was going to ask why one would prefer eating chicken feet, but I think you just answered my question. I will have to try some. Any suggestions on preparation beyond tossing the feet into the pot to boil?

        1. Gotta be careful; check out specific recipes first. I note that they take a lot of prep and long cooking – for frying they must be skinned; and the recipes are specific to chicken feet/paws. I don’t think that just winging it à la chinoise would be sufficient, you’d just end up with gristly feet coated in sauce.

          I’d throw a few in my pot of chicken sauce; otherwise, I’ll pass, as I do with brains and testicles — delicacies to some; stomach turning to me.

      1. Stock should never boil as it makes it cloudy (the fat emulsifies into the liquid). Just a slight simmer for 6 hours or so is recommended. As far as different preparations, if I’m making Chinese stock, I add scallions, cilantro, white peppercorns and ginger to the pot, for generic stock, I’ll add carrot/celery/onion/thyme/parsley/bay leaf/black peppercorns. I also supplement the feet with other chicken scraps like backs, necks and wing tips.

        I couldn’t tell if you were asking about stock or other preparations like the one Jerry mentioned.

  3. Some of those in the bottom tray look like hands .
    I once saw a film about Elvis and the food he used to scoff ,chicken feet are big down South .There was a black lady in the film ,she said when the pastor came to Sunday lunch ,he would get the breast and they would have chicken feet and Okra
    Apart from anything else ,there does not seem to be a lot of meat on a chicken foot .

  4. I hope I’m not stepping on the post, but in a semi-related subject, it drives me crazy when I see yams labeled as sweet potatoes and sweet potatoes labeled as yams.


    1. The variability in English is quite substantial in this area. In fact, I heard it joked once as follows: Want to create a never ending war at an American Thanksgiving? Invite friends and relatives from across the country and insist that startchy vegetable X is either one (or a rutabaga).

  5. The distinction between paws and feet actually makes sense morphologically. Birds, like cats, are digitigrade– they walk on their toes, not the soles of their feet. In a cat, when we refer to the paw, we are referring to the toes only, which are in contact with the ground. (The bones inside the toes are the phalanges.) What most people might think is the first part of a cat’s leg is actually the sole of its foot. (The bones inside are the metatarsals.) A bird is similar. the toes (phalanges) are on the ground, and the first part of the leg is the sole of the foot (the bones of which are fused to one another and some tarsal bones to form the tarso-metatarsus). So a chicken’s “paw” would be the toes, the chicken’s “foot” would continue on to include the tarso-metatarsus. In the second picture in the OP, the paw seems to have a bit of the distal end of the tarso-metatarsus included; the foot clearly includes much more of the tarso-metatarsus (i.e. the sole of the foot). I can’t tell if they’ve cut the foot right at the ankle joint (which is between the tarso-metatarsus and the tibio-tarsus, which also includes some fused tarsals), or a bit lower.

    GCM (posting as whyevolutionistrue to save logins)

  6. Haha, glad you like them too. Chicken feet are one of my favorites! I’ve met quite a few Americans who are disgusted by chicken feet. I’m surprised and happy to find one who likes them.

  7. Back at my last job, a group of us would go out for lunch on Fridays. We had several Cantonese speakers amongst us and there were many good Chinese restaurants nearby (Vancouver area).

    One time at a dim sum, we had chicken feet and one person commented that the best translation was actually ‘chicken hands’. I don’t know if it would be different for Mandarin.

  8. Thanks for doing the research on this. I recently took a photo of a package of “Chicken Paws” next to a package of “Chicken Feet” at a market and laughed at the idea of “paws” but never distinguished the difference between “paws” and “feet”.

    My husband could eat anything, so had eaten chicken feet in a Chinese restaurant. I could hardly stand to see him eat them, and certainly didn’t share. He used to like pickled pigs feet also. One time, I made him some. I took all the meat off the bone and cartilage, only to learn that gnawing on the cartilage and bones was a major part of the treat.

    Hardly ever does one find whole chicken sold with feet attached. For making broth, I just use backs and wings. Now that I know “paws” add to the excellence of the broth, I guess I’ll have to buy a package of “paws”.

  9. Chicken feet comprise of skin, ligament, ligaments, and bones. Indeed, even without giving a lot of meat, they’re high in collagen — the most bountiful protein in your body.

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