Graphic: Karl Gustafson

The first stranger who ever slipped me the tongue was an elderly Chinese lady, and while it was by my clear invitation and with my consent, it was nevertheless sort of an accident.

I was at a dim sum brunch in Boston with college pals who were of Chinese descent at a restaurant I can now, some 30 years later, recall neither name nor specific location. What I do know is that the place was packed to the gills, three parts Chinese families to one part college students, and that the little ladies who shuffled behind the carts in house slippers seemed at once impossibly ancient and insanely strong. I had no doubt that any overeager customer who dared reach for a steaming basket or generously piled plate would have their fingers snapped like matchsticks in a nanosecond.

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The woman who came to our table had gray hair in a frizzled perm, polyester pants, and an apron that had once had flowers on it, long since faded to ghostly images, and a lace trim now in tatters. Flustered, a bit uncomfortable, and wanting very much not to be chastised by the server or to appear uncool in front of my friends, I pointed blithely at a plate that was heaped with what I assumed were strips of crispy fried pork in a glistening sauce. The mass of placid wrinkles that was our server’s face split in three places, revealing two glittering eyes of startling light hazel, and a smile that, while not entirely toothless, was nevertheless not particularly well-organized from a dental perspective. She winked at my dining companions, patted my shoulder, placed the plate on the table, and shuffled off. I could swear I heard her snort as she departed.

My friends congratulated me on a great choice and dug in. Some of them popped the whole strips into their mouths. Others held the fat end with their fingers, bit down, and sort of scraped with their teeth, pulling what appeared to be small thin bones out of the middle of the meat. Which was when I realized that whatever I had ordered, it certainly wasn’t pork.

Turns out, I had ordered crispy fried duck tongues. And while I had certainly not done it on purpose, I’ve always been glad that I did. Because a well-prepared duck tongue is a thing of beauty. Duck tongues, while not really meaty, are reminiscent of perfectly rendered duck skin, crispy and fatty, with little thin layers of cartilage that pop pleasantly between the teeth. Some people like to just eat them whole, little inner bone and all, but I prefer the bite and scrape method. Fried in a light cornstarch dredge and served either tossed in a great sauce or with a dipping condiment on the side, they are the bar snack or party appetizer you never knew you always wanted.

If you have a Chinatown in your city or an Asian market near you, sourcing fresh duck tongues is not particularly difficult, and preparing them is surprisingly easy. The recipe below is my favorite way to serve them, piled on a plate with a small bowl on the side to hold the discarded bones. This recipe serves 8-10 as an appetizer but can be halved easily for a smaller gathering. If you can’t get duck tongues, the sauce is also terrific on chicken wings. Or fried pork strips.

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Crispy Duck Tongues

Serves 8-10

  • 2 lbs. fresh duck tongues, rinsed and patted dry
  • 3 tsp. soy sauce
  • 4 tsp. rice wine
  • 1 tsp. black vinegar or balsamic vinegar
  • Zest of half an orange
  • ¼ tsp. ground white pepper
  • ¼ tsp. ground coriander
  • 1 egg white
  • ½ cup cornstarch
  • 4 cups peanut oil for frying
  • Kosher salt, to taste
  • Spicy Crunchy Glaze (recipe below) or the dipping sauce of your choice

In a small bowl, mix the soy sauce, rice wine, vinegar, orange zest, pepper, and coriander. Place the duck tongues in a zip-top bag and pour the marinade over. Let marinate in the fridge for 2 hours.

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In a deep pot, bring the oil to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Set up a sheet pan with paper towels to rest the tongues after they finish frying.

In a large bowl, whisk the egg white until foamy and light. Drain the marinade from the tongues, but don’t dry them. Add the tongues to the egg white, tossing until they are all lightly coated. Sprinkle the cornstarch over the bowl and toss again to coat.

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Fry the tongues in three or four batches for about 2 to 2½ minutes each, until golden brown and crispy. Remove to the sheet pan and lightly salt while still hot. If serving with the glaze, toss the hot tongues in the glaze until coated and serve immediately. Garnish with toasted sesame seeds and sliced green onion if you like. If you don’t want to glaze them, you can serve dipping sauces on the side, anything from hoisin to chili oil, barbecue sauce, or even ranch; experiment to see what you like.

If not serving immediately, hold the fried tongues on a rack over a sheet pan in a 200-degree oven.

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Spicy Crunchy Glaze

  • 2 Tbsp. Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Crisp sauce (You can find this in Asian markets or online, or find a recipe you like and make from scratch)
  • 2 ½ Tbsp. honey
  • 1 tsp. soy sauce
  • 1 tsp. rice wine
  • Zest of half an orange
  • ¼ tsp. MSG or kosher salt

Mix all ingredients in a small bowl and set aside. This is enough glaze for two pounds of duck tongues. If you make less, you can halve this recipe or only use half and save the rest for another use.

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