Of all the Chinese dishes prepared in the west that attempt to remain faithful to the original article, Peking duck would have to be the most successful in spirit, if not always the execution. This dish is extremely complex on a number of levels; firstly, it is close to impossible to recreate the roast duck in a domestic kitchen. Furthermore, Peking duck is served in several courses - quite often two, but more traditionally three separate and laborious courses. The complexity of preparation, and multiple courses places Peking duck well into the “special occasion” category - and rightly so, as it pays homage to the regal nature that the dish historically possesses.
What is Peking duck?
So what exactly then, does a Peking duck meal entail? Say per chance, that you have found yourself in either an up-market, or perhaps a more traditional northern Chinese restaurant. The first course you will receive will be the duck skin, along with any unctuous subcutaneous fat that comes along with it. This may sound rich, or perhaps even downright disgusting, but the careful methodology of cooking and preparation means that the skin will taste enticing, instead of sickly and overwhelming. Along with the duck skin, the waiter will also bring slices of green onion, perhaps batons of cucumber, a rich sauce called Tian Mian Jiang that is closely akin to hoi sin, and most importantly, pancakes. A small pancake will be placed onto your plate, topped with a slice of duck skin, some green onion and then some sauce. Once you wrap it all up and take a bite, you will be left in little doubt that this is one of the greatest examples of regional Chinese cuisine.
Next up, you will be asked how the second course is to be prepared. This course will be composed mainly of the duck meat, and is traditional offered in one of three styles. Xiang cai bao (san choy bau) is finely chopped poultry, seasoned, then wrapped in a crisp lettuce leaf. It is fun, highly addictive and the perfect second course for Peking duck. You will also be offered a stir-fry of the duck meat, or possibly a noodle based dish, with vegetables and perhaps mushrooms. These are the three usual suspects, but your local joint may well offer you something altogether different. Indulge the chef slightly, but if he gets too wacky, make sure to stick to one of the classic 3 preparations.
If the restaurant you are dining in is even close to traditional, a third course of a simple simmered duck soup will be offered. This can often be highly dependant on your ethnicity, and how broad-minded your Chinese restaurant is. Often, these light, palate cleansing soups are only offered to people of Chinese origin, the thinking being that:
A). Lao wai don't want soup this late in a meal, and
B). The flavour will be too light for them anyway. Be persistent. Explain that you want a full Peking duck meal, soup included. Your waiter will be very impressed.
I love cooking. More pertinently, I love cooking complex and traditional meals. But I will never, ever attempt to cook Peking duck at home. Here is why. The duck itself must be just so. Many farmed ducks lack the fat that provides the crisp skin the first course relies on. Let the restaurant source out the right duck for you. Even more daunting is the preparation. A Peking duck must first be inflated - that's right, blown up, balloon style.¹ Even if you have the lungs to tackle this, you must ensure that your duck has been killed with no nicks or holes in the skin, allowing any air to escape. Why, you may well ask, does the duck need to be inflated in the first place? It has everything to do with the crisp skin in the first course. The skin is separated from the flesh firstly by inflation, then it is massaged to ensure that it is evenly loosened. The duck is then basted with boiling water to tighten the skin - but at the same time keeping it separate from the flesh, then it is dried and a hot liquid mixture, including maltose or honey is ladled over the skin. Once again the duck is hung to dry, ensuring a crisp skin when roasted. In addition, the real article will be roasted in an earthenware oven, fuelled by the wood of Chinese fruit trees, and in particular, the Chinese date tree. However, the real secret comes last, with a complex and often secretive blend of spices, which are placed inside the duck cavity before roasting. This ensures that the subtle spicing imbues the whole bird – from the centre out.
And this is just the duck itself; the pancakes from the first course are also a challenge.
Known colloquially as Mandarin pancakes, these thin, chewy wonders are a whole cooking course unto themselves. Unlike regular pancakes, these are made with boiling water - which develops the gluten present in the flour, and results in a fine, yet resilient wrapper. Before cooking, each pancake is rolled out, painted with oil, then combined with another pancake, before rolling again. Once cooked, the oil between the pancakes will steam them apart - resulting in two impossibly thin wrappers.
Even without the second or the third soup course, this should leave you in no doubt that Peking duck is a dish best left to the experts.
For such a famous dish, its exact origins are a little obscure. Obviously it is a regal dish, with such a complex preparation, but as to which period in particular, there is little solid evidence. Some say that Peking duck was first served to the Manchu emperors, but there is no disputing that this dish found its peak of popularity and renown during the reign of Qian Long, in the late eighteenth century. Communism returned the dish to the realm of the elite, and in 1949 it could be found in only 5 Beijing restaurants.
Ai Guangfu is someone who knows more about the subject of Peking duck than most people alive. At 64, this chef has spent some 50 years perfecting the technique of sensational Peking duck. It could be said that he is one of the greatest exponents of the dish. Fortunately for us, he hasn't rested on his laurels. After an exhaustive research of documents from The Forbidden City, he has identified several key spices that could have been used in ancient Peking ducks. This is a little like the Colonel giving up and telling us what the secret eleven were, but much, much more flavoursome. These spices included liquorice root, angelica, wolfberry, cassia bark, aniseed and Szechwan pepper.
Hopefully the pioneering, and delicious work of Mr Guangfu will reverberate around the world, and Peking duck will be lifted to even greater heights. Until then, make sure you order Peking duck well ahead of time from your Chinese restaurant - so they have ample time to prepare the duck, and ensure that you enjoy it with a sense of history and reverence - and of course, gusto.
¹ OK, should you decide that you simply must prepare your own Peking duck, AnotherMartini reminded me of a nifty cheat’s method of inflating your duck. Insert the nozzle from a bicycle pump into the neck – between the flesh and skin. Tie the top of the neck firmly with string, so it forms an airtight seal. Start pumping, and keep going until the entire skin is lifted away from the flesh. That’s right – a duck balloon. You may need to massage the skin in places to ensure that it lifts away entirely.
Another mechanical shortcut I have seen assists with the drying process. A domestic fan, or even a hair dryer can be used to dry the skin to the required parchment moisture level in a shorter period of time, shaving a few hours off the preparation time.
- Our very own simonc is not only a regular visitor to China, but is also a roast duck lover of some note. He explained to me an interesting nomenclature conundrum. Peking duck obviously originated in Peking – but now that the city is called Beijing, how do the locals ask for the dish? Beijing duck, or Beijing kao ya is the accepted norm. It is apparently quite the faux pas to utter the “P” word when ordering this dish in Beijing.
- Some sources, Sydney Morning Herald, 13.12.02