Crisp, amber skin atop moist, flavorful dusky meat all carved and rolled into parchment-like pancakes and brushed with sweet bean or hoisin sauce: Peking Duck is perhaps the dish we most often think of when imagining Chinese cuisine. It is listed in brochures and books as being the “must-have” dish for travelers to Beijing, where preparing it is still considered an artform.
I grew up seeing rows of delectable cooked ducks hung on hooks in the front windows of food shops and restaurants in New York City’s Chinatown. Today, the same shops in Chinese cities and settlements all over the world are still selling roasted ducks in this fashion. This is because the dish is considered a specialty – requiring great skill to make – and one too difficult to prepare at home.Roasted duck in one form or another has been enjoyed in China for more than a millennium, but the first description of prepared duck that resembles our modern Peking Duck comes from the Yuan Dynasty, ca. 1330, in Yinshan Zhengyao (Important Principles of Food and Drink), by Hu Sihui. Even at that time, the dish was world renown, having been brought by the Yuan to the furthest reaches of their Empire and beyond. At roughly the same time (mid-fourteenth Century) a reference for “Chinese Duck” that seems to describe Peking Duck is also found in a Yemeni dictionary written in five different languages (Arabic, Persian, Turkic, Mongol and Greek). So, Peking Duck is, and has been for centuries, one of China’s great Silk Road gifts to the world.
Traditionally, Peking Duck is served and many important occasions, including weddings, because ducks and geese are symbols of conjugal fidelity in China. When served with the head and feet on they conjure images of wholeness and completeness as well. The amber-to-auburn color of a roasted duck also counts as “red” and brings happiness and good luck to the marriage or the event that is being celebrated.
Peking Duck really isn’t a dish, it is more of a process that begins with the type of duck selected and how it is raised and culminates in the Chef slicing the meat into 120 pieces and serving it for diners to enjoy. Historically, small black ducks from Nanjing were used to create Peking Duck. These birds were canal dwellers and relatively sedentary with a high percentage of body fat. Today, most restaurateurs use the larger, white Pekin Ducks as the basis of the dish, although there is some use of foreign ducks that are larger and leaner in some establishments.
To offset the change from the small black ducks to the modern ducks, a period of force feeding has been introduced to increase body fat. So the ducklings are allowed normal lives for about the first month and a half of their lives and then they are put in small pens that restrict their movement and force fed several times a day.
After harvesting and cleaning, the skin is separated from the body by blowing air underneath and through it. This allows the skin to cook separately and lets most of the fat cling to the meat and keep it characteristically moist. In times past this was accomplished by inserting bamboo straws under the skin and having chefs or line cooks blow air into the straws to separate the skin from the fat and meat. These days, it is done with a manual or automatic pump, very much like a bicycle pump, that pumps compressed air under the skin. After this, the duck is dipped in and out of water that has been brought to a boil and then removed from the heat. This dipping tightens the skin while keeping it separated from the fat and meat below. Next, the duck is hung by a large hook in a “cool and dry” place. This can be a screened area outside, or an unheated room at the periphery or cellar of the house or building, or it can be a room made cool and ventilated by the use of fans. There are also special cabinets that are used for ventilating and drying ducks. First the duck is dried inside and out and then it is brushed inside and out with one or more layers of a malt-sugar based syrup. If multiple layers of syrup are used, the duck is allowed to dry completely between layers, giving a lacquered appearance to some ducks.
The ingredients that go into this syrup are tightly guarded secrets that vary between restaurants and cooks and help to give the duck a range of distinctive flavors and keep the Beijing establishments competitive in a market awash with Peking Duck offerings. Although the ingredients vary quite a bit, the few recipe anchors include some variety malted sugar, water and salt.
The type of malt sugar can be from rice, millet, wheat, or barley or a mixture of these grains. Some cooks use a bit of sorghum to produce the malted sugar for a more complex flavor as well. To this, a rice wine like Shaoxing (Huangjiu) or Liaojiu can be added, although some cooks prefer to use rice wine vinegar or even just a bit of lemon juice instead. This can be used as is, or it can be seasoned with cloves, star anise, cassia, black cardamom, mustard or fennel seeds, ginger, nutmeg,– or nearly anything else you wish to add. Sometimes a bit of dark soy sauce or a touch of fermented gluten is used to deepen and darken the syrup as well.
When the lacquering and drying is completed, the bird is placed on a rack or hung on a pole and cooked in a brick oven heated to 475 – 525 degrees Fahrenheit. How the ovens are heated is again a matter of debate between cooks. The “hung” ovens are generally heated with fruit-wood fires produced from peach, pear trees and the rack ovens are sometimes heated with hardwoods and/or sorghum. The sorghum is very high in tannins and phenols (like tea) and produces a distinctive flavor in the meat. In the hung ovens, the birds are placed near the wood embers and cooked for 30-40 minutes depending on the temperature. The cooks can adjust the distance the ducks hang above the flame to ensure even cooking. In the rack ovens, the birds are placed on the grill after the heating fire has been extinguished and the birds are cook by convection.
Unfortunately, there is no substitute for a brick oven. I grew up in a home that had a large wood-fire brick oven in the backyard as part of a great stone cooking chimney and can attest that there is nothing better for meat, bread or pizza. Short of redesigning your kitchen or backyard, I recommend preheating your oven for many hours before attempting to cook a Peking-like duck. This massive preheating will allow for more even heating and will tend to keep the oven’s temperature more stable – both characteristics of brick ovens.
The Chef carves the duck, traditionally, into 120 pieces, and these days, many scrape the underside of the skin to remove bits of fat that may have clung to the flesh. First the skin is served and enjoyed dipped in sweetened or unsweetened garlic sauce. Then the meat is served on pancakes (although I have also seen it served on buns in the South). Tiny brushes made from spring onions are available on most tables to brush sweet bean paste or osmanthus sauce onto the pancake, although in Hong Kong and in the West, the osmanthus sauce is replaced by Hoisin sauce. It’s a pity that the osmanthus sauce is seen infrequently outside of China. It has an unusual flavor and tastes and smells a bit like apricots. It can be extremely (overly) sweet or a bit sweet and tart, depending on the constituents of the simple syrup used to make it. Cut vegetables are also served with the duck and can include cucumber, lettuce or cabbage, Chinese yams, taro or lotus, and shallots. Fermented gluten which has a very strong soy flavor is also served as well sometimes, as is sliced pineapple. Lastly, a duck stir fry or a broth or soup is often made from the scraps on the duck carcass after the first two duck courses are consumed. The soup or broth helps to clear the palate after the Peking Duck feast that preceded it.
You can see from the description above how complex the recipe is and how variation in just one or two ingredients or methods can produce a dramatic change in the flavor of the final product. I have never attempted it at home, and am happy eating great ducks during my travels, or passable ones from the better Chinese restaurants in this area. The version of Peking Duck – called Ba Ye Duck – I has a couple of weeks ago at Hua’s Restaurant in Beijing was miraculous and is the duck to beat. here at home, I sometimes grab a duck-to go from a Chinatown market and reheat it at home – the Chinese version of take-and-bake. However you choose to enjoy Peking Duck, now you know that it is a recipe – or rather a process – steeped in the history of the Silk Road. (Words and most photos by Laura Kelley; photo of Ba Ye Duck borrowed from Hua’s Restaurant).