When I go grocery shopping, I always look for pig feet. In the sea of unrecognizably standard-looking cuts of animal muscles at grocery stores — disk-shaped loins, round humps of pork butt — trotters are always the anomaly. They look most precisely as they were: feet, hooves, the tired bones and tissue that kept an animal upright its whole life.
Unfortunately for pig feet, their look hasn’t exactly made them a popular part of the mainstream American diet. As Cecil Adams wrote back in 2016, one of the challenges in encouraging more Americans to consume offal and organ meat is that “organs resemble, well, body parts: any steak slapped on a plate looks like dinner, while a lovingly presented calf heart may suggest an autopsy.” And, Adams added, there’s the “socioeconomic stigma…that had a racial component too,” which is only exacerbated by “travelogue shows [like] Bizarre Foods.”
Despite being maligned by the mainstream, trotters have found their own way and hold a beloved place in many cuisines (and in the process have become a slightly competitive dish for aunties to make for potlucks). They are a staple at plenty of restaurants, such as New York’s Hakata Tonton, where (before the pandemic), they were present in the vast majority of the dishes — servers often boasted that the place was all about its tonsoku (pig feet) as soon as customers sat down. And outside of restaurants, pig feet are not hard to find if you know where to look and ask for them by name: Even when I lived in a small town with a population of only 15,000, they were a staple in my kitchen, sourced from the local butcher who happily sawed them lengthwise for easier braising.
Perhaps this is my romantic way of defending something that others view as gross or unclean, given the nostalgia and warm feelings pig feet offer me. Before pressure cooking was hip or common, my mother would use our dated Cuisinart to coax glossy, supple gelatin from pig feet, smothering them with soy, ginger, and star anise. I purposefully still reserve those flavors of pig feet for use in her kitchen, so it feels like a big hug for when I’m able to visit.
These days, my go-to version of pig feet has been an accumulation of ingredients I’ve found pair well together, generally through the process of refrigerator clean-outs. I suppose this is fitting for pig feet, which have a personality and profile strong enough to accommodate many different flavors. Since moving to a new place with a Meyer lemon tree, my most recent additions to the pot are black (or dried) lemons. Interestingly enough, their refreshing bitterness gives needed backbone to the tingle of green Sichuan peppercorn, bright lemongrass, and subtly sweet gochugaru. I like to use split trotters, as it shortens the cook time somewhat and makes them a bit easier to eat — if you’re able, ask your butcher to split them for you.
I have no doubt this recipe will keep evolving, changing as it needs to based on what’s available that day. And even if you don’t have a pressure cooker, you can still get a satisfyingly tender result after a few hours on the stovetop. I think that’s the beauty of pig feet: No matter what time, whose kitchen, and what ingredients are lying around, they will always be able to manifest something special.
Braised Pig Feet
2 tablespoons neutral oil
2 teaspoons whole fennel seed
2 teaspoons green Sichuan peppercorn
1 teaspoon gochugaru (Korean red chile pepper flakes)
1 whole dried lemon or lime, pierced with a knife
½ medium yellow onion, peeled and sliced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
2 bird’s eye chilies, stemmed and chopped
1 stalk lemongrass, stemmed and chopped
¼ cup chopped culantro (you can substitute cilantro)
¼ cup Yondu (you can substitute fish sauce)
¼ cup Shaoxing wine
3 whole pig trotters, split, or 1 large (2-pound) pig foot, segmented
2 teaspoons kosher salt
½ teaspoon white sugar
1 quart unsalted chicken or vegetable stock
Julienned perilla leaf, for garnish (if perilla is unavailable, chopped green onion or cilantro will work)
Step 1: In a 6-quart or larger pressure cooker, heat the oil on the saute setting until slick and shiny. Add the fennel seed, Sichuan peppercorn, gochugaru, and dried lemon and saute for 1 minute until fragrant.
Step 2: Add the onion, garlic, chiles, lemongrass, and culantro with a dash of salt and sauté 3 to 5 minutes or until the onions are translucent.
Step 3: Deglaze the pot with the Yondu and Shaoxing wine and reduce until the sauce is almost dry and has a syrupy consistency.
Step 4: Add the pig feet to the pot with salt and sugar. Add the chicken stock and stir to combine the ingredients to ensure the pig feet are loosely covered by the vegetables. The amount of stock should come roughly halfway up the pig feet, so add more stock or water as needed.
Step 5: Cook on high pressure for 90 minutes. Release the pressure using natural release.
Step 6: Restart the pressure cooker’s saute function to let the pork jus cook down to your desired level of saltiness.
Step 7: Remove the pig feet carefully from the pressure cooker and strain the jus through a fine-mesh strainer or colander lined with cheesecloth. Serve the pig feet with the strained jus and a julienned perilla leaf for garnish, if desired.
Jenny Dorsey is a professional chef, author, and speaker specializing in interdisciplinary storytelling fusing food with social good. She leads a nonprofit community think tank called Studio ATAO and runs her own culinary consulting business.
Louiie Victa is a chef, recipe developer, food photographer, and stylist living in Las Vegas.