Peking Duck in Beijing

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. 

Peking Duck (Ba Ye Duck) Dinner

 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 SihuiEven 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.

Peking Ducks in Supermarket

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.

Chefs Near Ovens at Hua’s

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.

Chef Carving Duck

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).

Culinary History Mystery #2 – The Origins of Ice Cream!

Ice Cream Treats

Triple digit temperatures have hit the Central Atlantic once again, leaving locals and visitors alike to find any way they can to keep the mercury down. Some become shut-ins moving between their air-conditioned homes to their air-conditioned cars to their air-conditioned jobs and back again; some take to the beaches, lakes and pools to swim and soak the heat away; still others turn to cold drinks, ices and of course, ice cream to keep cool.

The origins of ice cream are a convoluted tangle of misinformation and repetition. Alternately the Persians, Chinese, Arabs and Indians are credited with inventing ice cream. This seems to happen because non-dairy puddings and other chilled desserts are treated as synonymous with ice cream – causing a confusion of substance, time and place.

Although the Chinese seem to get the most credit for developing ice cream, the one really important thing bothers me about this version of history is that milk and milk products do not form a large part of the Chinese diet. The Tibetans and of course the Mongolians have lots of dairy in their diets, but the Han Chinese and other ethnic groups do not. Although a modern artisanal cheese industry is today taking root in China and producing Gouda and other western varieties, traditionally, cheese is not something associated with Chinese food. Bean curd-based concoctions, whether fried, or in soup or pudding form, these are often referred to as, “Chinese cheese”. There are only two traditional buffalo milk-based puddings that are sometimes eaten chilled that have any relation to ice cream, namely Jiang Zhuang Nai – the sweet gingery pudding and Shuang Pi Nai – which is a sweetened, cooked custard of milk and egg whites encased between two milk skins.

The pages of Marco Polo’s Travels record a lot of milk being enjoyed as cheese, curds, yogurt, milk, and even a sort of vodka (arkhi) in the Yuan court. So after the 13th Century, milk enters the Chinese diet through the Mongolian-led dynasty. However there is no mention of ice-cream, or anything resembling it.

In the Song Dynasty (960-1279), however, a poem entitled Ode to the Ice Cheese “詠冰酪” was written by the poet Yang Wanli (1127–1206).

It looks so smooth but still has a crisp texture,
It appears congealed and yet it seems to float.
Like jade, it breaks at the bottom of the dish;
As with snow, it melts in the light of the sun.

So it’s still possible that the roots of ice cream in China preceded the rule of the Mongols. But from where did the idea come from? Was it indeed an indigenous Chinese idea, or was it an adaptation of an idea that came from far-away shores?

Although information is hard to come by, a few pieces of information have solid references behind them. Ice harvested in the winter or from ice-covered mountainous regions and then used to increase the storage time of foods has been used in many cultures for millennia. The Persians had yakhchals to keep the ice frozen during the warm seasons and the Chinese and Mesopotamians had icehouses. Documentary sources exist of orders of ice coming from pharaonic Egypt to keep food in the warmest months.


The first recorded ice-desserts are honey and fruit flavored sorbets offered for sale in Athenian markets in the 5th Century BCE. Both the Persians and the Chinese enjoyed ice or snow flavored with honey and fruit or sugary syrups. For the Persians, sherbet was more of a drink than the frozen dessert we now know by the same name. In the 4th Century BCE, the Persians were enjoying an ancestor of today’s chilled faloodeh pudding made from vermicelli noodles, rosewater, lime juice and a bit of cornstarch for thickening.

The next data point we have is from Pliny, recording Emperor Nero (54 to 68 CE) sending slaves to the mountains to gather snow and ice for as a basis for desserts flavored with berries and nuts. This doesn’t seem to be an advance on what the Greeks were doing five centuries earlier, but rather a simple repetition of a great idea.

So to the first century CE, we have ice and snow-based desserts flavored with fruit, nuts and syrups, in both east and west, chilled drinks on a shaved or crushed ice base in the west, and a rocking, chilled wheat based pudding also in the west. The next innovation that I have come across that walks us a step closer to ice cream is the addition of buffalo milk to the faloodeh. This seems to have occurred in China’s Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 CE) where a frozen concoction of milk, flour and camphor was enjoyed in the royal court.

Tang China was a cosmopolitan place. Arab and Persian traders were there and spreading the word of Islam by the early to mid 7th Century. Soon after this informal contact began, formal ambassadors arrived in China, led by Sa`d ibn Abī Waqqās, the maternal uncle of the prophet himself. Over the next century contact grew more frequent between the Chinese and the western Muslim world with Arab and Persian fighters assisting the Chinese in quelling rebellions in Tibet and with the exchange of servants from the royal courts. I think it likely that the Persians introduced the early form of faloodeh to the Tang Chinese and the next step in the evolution of ice cream took place.

Interestingly, I’ve seen references (that I cannot confirm) to the Indian use of ice and salt to create an endothermic reaction used to lower the temperature of other substances as early as the 4th Century CE. Also the Arabs are credited with being the first to sweeten ice-desserts with sugar instead of honey or fruit juice. But by the 10th Century CE, ice cream was widespread amongst many of the Arab world’s major cities, such as Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo.

Greeks, Persians, Chinese, Arabs, and Indians all can be referenced with developing some part of the process of freezing and flavoring ice, milk or cream to come up with ice cream. Sounds like a Silk Road creation to me – eh? I see ideas flowing around the globe, innovations taking place and being passed on to the next place until a precursor to the modern product emerged.

Today, some amazing innovation in ice cream flavors are coming out of Hong Kong – including: Sichuan pepper and Morello cherry flavored ice cream. Other flavors offered include: black sesame, jasmine tea, pear and port and even gorgonzola ice cream. (Words by Laura Kelley).

Tales Told by a Jade Vessel

Yuan Jade Vessel

This interesting object recently found its way into our home. It’s a jade vessel dating from China’s Yuan Dynasty. It appeared on the breakfast table one morning at the end of January. To be honest, at first I wasn’t so sure about it, but the more I consider it, the more I’m taking a shine to it.

We’ve got to clean it up a bit, but its really quite nice when light is shone behind it: the waves and tails of the sea monsters along the edge glow gold along with the ears, paws and tail of the lion or tiger on the lid. It was used to hold a dark substance, perhaps caked ink or makeup or perfume or oil – we’re not sure.

The sea monsters are a fairly standard Yuan theme. The square repetitive border is also a standard in Song/Yuan jades . . . but those triangles look suspiciously like yurts to me – which I’ve never heard of before in a jade.

What I like best about it is that history is written in its very form. The overall shape is nice enough, but the incision work is rather crude indicating a lesser skilled artisan or even an individual owner did that carving. Jade had come into use for everyday objects in the Song Dynasty and became even more commonplace under the Yuan. Some incredibly fine jades exist from this period, but most of those have royal or noble provenance. It is possible that the Mongolian court drew the best artisans to the center and that people rungs down on the social order wishing a jade vessel such as this had to make due with the craftsmen available, or to incise it themselves.

In general, the time of the Mongolian consolidation of power was a time of great social and political upheaval in China. The Han majority saw the Khans as foreign invaders and when possible, the nobles withdrew and refused to participate in courtly life. Heavy taxation of the peasants to help pay for wars of territorial expansion also made them unpopular with many of the common folk as well.

On a positive note, the Yuan period was a time of great flowering of the arts and sciences in China. This was in part due to contact with foreigners from countries under the sway of neighboring Khanates. Astronomy and mathematics flourished with assistance Persian and Arab scholars, advances were made in printing and typography, the hand cannon was developed, cloisonné came east from Byzantium and was eagerly embraced by the Chinese. It was also during this time that Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta traveled to China. Mongolian troops escorted Northern Silk Road caravans as far west as the shores of the Caspian, and China’s power stretched all the way to the borders of Poland and Hungary.

So from the time of Kublai Khan and his descendants, a time far ago and long away, a beautiful jade vessel from the Silk Road has emerged and made its way to our home. (Words by Laura Kelley, Photo of Yuan Jade Vessel by Laura Kelley.)