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Peking duck: the complex history of a Chinese classic

Offering an irresistible combination of flavours and textures, this classic Chinese dish has a long and complex history — and a cooking process to match.

Photographs By Yuki Sigiura
Published 9 Jul 2021, 00:15 BST, Updated 9 Jul 2021, 10:35 BST
Peking duck is one of the world’s great dishes and as much an emblem of Beijing ...

Peking duck is one of the world’s great dishes and as much an emblem of Beijing as the Forbidden City or the old hutong lanes. A skilled chef is said to be able to carve each duck into more than 100 pieces. Normally, the skin is savoured first, perhaps with a sprinkle of sugar, followed by the meat with all the trimmings.

Photograph by Yuki Sugiura

A young chef in a white toque parks a trolley by the side of the table. On it is a duck; plump and glossy, its skin is an enticing caramel and entirely smooth. With a long knife, the chef shears off slices of lacquered skin and then succulent meat, laying them neatly on a serving platter. Pancakes are taken from a stack in a bamboo steamer, anointed with dark tianmian sauce, laid with slices of duck and shards of leek and cucumber and rolled up, ready to be eaten. The crisp skin, dipped in white sugar, melts instantly in the mouth. The combination is irresistible: the fragrance of the meat and skin, the savoury hit of the sauce, the refreshing contrast of the vegetables.

Peking duck is one of the world’s great dishes and as much an emblem of Beijing as the Forbidden City or the old hutong lanes. Surprisingly, though, it’s a gastronomic anomaly in this arid, northern city. Most of China’s classic duck dishes hail from the watery Jiangnan region around Shanghai, where ducks swim in paddy fields and ponds and appear in delicacies such as Nanjing saltwater duck and Hangzhou duck soup. In Beijing, aside from the ubiquitous pork and chicken, lamb is the most distinctive local meat; duck is somewhat overlooked. But for Peking duck, locals make an exception.

The dish is said to have originated during the 13th century in Hangzhou, not far from Shanghai. Roast duck was one of the cooked foods sold door-to-door by street vendors, and it became a speciality of nearby Nanjing, the first capital of the Ming dynasty. Allegedly, it was only after 1420, when the Yongle emperor moved his capital to Beijing, that roast duck found its way to the city. Originally, it was known as ‘Jinling roast duck’ (Jinling being an archaic name for Nanjing). Over time, chefs in Beijing bred a local variety that became known for its snowy-white feathers, thin skin and tender flesh and was regarded as far superior to the ducks of Nanjing.

According to veteran Beijing chef Ai Guangfu, in the earliest days of Chinese roast duck, the birds would be roasted on a large metal fork over an open fire. But in the southern capital, Nanjing, they began to roast them in a menlu (an enclosed oven), so that more could be cooked at once. “The menlu was a square, brickbuilt oven with a door on every side,” says Ai. “The chefs would build a fire in the middle, and when it had burnt down to smouldering embers, they’d hang four ducks inside each opening, shut the oven doors and then open them about an hour later, once all the ducks were roasted.”

Some time during the Ming dynasty, a roast duck shop named Old Bianyifang, in Beijing’s Rice Market Hutong, became known for the quality of its birds, which were cooked in a menlu. But it wasn’t until later, during the Qing dynasty (which lasted from 1644 to 1912) that Peking duck enjoyed its heyday. Among the various restaurants jostling for position was one that opened in 1885 under the revived Bianyifang name — a brand that lives on today, with many branches, although the birds are now roasted in gas ovens.

During the Qing dynasty, chefs began to roast their ducks in a new kind of ‘hanging oven’, called a gualu, which enabled them to cook the birds one by one, to order. This new method soon eclipsed the menlu and, even now, is synonymous with the finest Peking duck. Today, in the popular Siji Minfu restaurant, near the eastern side of the Forbidden City’s moat, fruitwood fires blaze at the open mouths of a row of brick ovens. Inside, ducks are hung in the fierce heat on metal racks. Chefs tend them carefully, turning and adjusting the birds until each is perfectly cooked — a process that’s much more precise and convenient than the batch-roasting of the menlu.

Aside from white Beijing leek and cucumber, Peking duck can be nicely complemented with crushed garlic or pickled vegetables.

Photograph by Yuki Sugiura

The hanging oven technique was developed by chefs in the kitchens of the Forbidden City, where the Qing imperial family had a predilection for roasted meats (records show that, in 1761, the Qianlong Emperor once ate roast duck eight times within a fortnight). In the late 19th century, a former poultry trader called Yang Quanren introduced it to the Beijing public. After years running a street stall selling ducks and chickens, in 1864 he opened his own restaurant, Quanjude, recruiting a team of former palace chefs to staff it. Quanjude’s roast duck, with its burnished skin and juicy flesh, quickly won the favour of the city’s upper classes and literati. The restaurant went on to survive the Japanese invasion, civil war and Cultural Revolution in the 20th century, emerging as one of Beijing’s flagship brands.

The traditional method for making Peking duck is exacting. First, the white ducks, reared just outside the city, are fattened up. Once slaughtered and plucked, a pump is used to drive air between the skin and flesh to create a taut, plump appearance once the duck is roasted. The innards are removed through a slit under one wing, leaving intact the rest of the skin, which is tightened with hot water before the duck is wind-dried and painted with maltose syrup to help colour it a rich mahogany. Finally, a little boiling water is poured inside the bird, which is roasted in the hot oven until the meat is juicy and the skin perfectly crisp.

The duck is served in ritualistic fashion. A specialist duck-slicing knife (pianya dao), with a long, thin, rectangular blade, is required to carve the bird into its different cuts: the prized pieces of skin, the ‘half-moon’ slices of meat with skin attached, the head and the two strips of meat that lie along the backbone. A skilled chef is said to be able to carve each duck into more than 100 pieces. Normally, the skin is savoured first, perhaps with a sprinkle of sugar, followed by the meat with all the trimmings, including not only a steamer’s-worth of pancakes, but also crisp, hollow sesame seed pastries that can be stuffed with slices of duck. Aside from white Beijing leek and cucumber, the duck may be complemented with crushed garlic or pickled vegetables.

After the main event, the remnants of the meat may be stir-fried with beansprouts. Most restaurants also brew up a milky broth using the bones plus some Chinese cabbage or winter melon. The grandest duck restaurants take the experience to dazzling extremes, offering a whole-duck banquet (quan ya xi), in which delicacies are concocted from every part of the carcass, from hearts to gizzards.

In many of London’s Chinese restaurants, meanwhile, the much-easier-to-prepare crispy duck is often served with all the Peking trimmings. For this dish, the meat is seasoned, steamed and then simply deep-fried before serving, creating a dish with a very different texture, but a delicious flavour, all the same.

In China, while the old stalwarts of Bianyifang and Quanjude rest on their laurels as purveyors of ‘classic’ Peking duck, they’ve largely been overtaken by more recent upstarts. In the early 2000s, a formerly state-owned duck restaurant chain, newly privatised, was renamed after its charismatic and talented head chef, Dong Zhenxiang, known as Da Dong (‘Great Dong’) because of his remarkable height. The Da Dong restaurants became a phenomenon, with their glitzy design, inventive menus and fabulously high prices, and Dong became China’s most acclaimed celebrity chef. More recently, the Siji Minfu duck restaurants have proved a hit with a more affordable, Da Dong-esque style.

Some Chinese gourmets lament what they see as a decline in standards, accusing various famous duck restaurants of passing off oven-roasted birds as those cooked in the heat of traditional fruitwood fires. Yet, there’s no doubt the roaring trade in Peking duck at a range of price points has brought this grand old dish, once available only to the elite, within the reach of a wider section of society. A century and a half after the establishment of Quanjude, Peking duck remains a Beijing classic.

Timeline: the history of Peking duck

1275: Roast duck is mentioned in Wu Zimu’s depiction of life in 13th-century Hangzhou (then known as Lin’an).

1403: The Ming dynasty Yongle Emperor moves his capital to Beijing, and the tradition of roast duck arrives with it.

1761: Imperial records show the Qianlong Emperor eats roast duck eight times over the course of 13 spring days.

1864: Quanjude roast duck restaurant is founded in Beijing by Yang Quanren.

1885: Bianyifang Roast Duck restaurant is founded in Beijing.

1970s: Chinese premier Zhou Enlai serves Peking duck to visiting dignitaries, including Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon.

Use a large ladle or spoon to pour the mixture over the duck several times, as if to bathe it, until the skin is completely coated.

Photograph by Yuki Sugiura

RECIPE: Ken Hom’s Peking duck

Preparing Peking duck is a time-consuming task, but this simplified method closely approximates the real thing. Give yourself plenty of time and the results will be good enough for an emperor.

Serves: 4-6 people
Takes: 2 hours 15 minutes (plus at least 4-5 hours drying time)

Ingredients
Whole duck (around 1.6-1.8kg), fresh or frozen

For the lemon honey syrup
1 lemon
3 tbsp honey
3 tbsp dark soy sauce
150ml Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry

To serve
24 spring onions
20 Chinese pancakes
6 tbsp hoisin sauce or sweet bean sauce

You'll need
A meat hook

Method

1. If the duck is frozen, thaw it thoroughly. Insert a meat hook near the neck.

2. Use a sharp knife to cut the lemon into 5mm slices, leaving the rind on. Add the lemon slices to a large pan with the rest of the honey syrup ingredients and 1.2 litres water. Bring the mixture to the boil, then turn the heat to low and simmer for around 20 mins.

3. Use a large ladle or spoon to pour the mixture over the duck several times, as if to bathe it, until the skin is completely coated. Hang the duck over a tray or roasting pan and leave in a cool, well-ventilated place to dry, for at least 4-5 hrs, and longer if possible (set the duck in front of a fan, if you like, to aid the process). When the duck has dried, the skin should feel like parchment paper.

4. Heat oven to 240C, 220C fan, gas 9. Place the duck breast-side up on a roasting rack set in a roasting pan, then pour 150ml water into the roasting pan (this will prevent the fat from splattering). Roast for 15 mins, then turn the heat down to 180C, 160C fan, gas 4 and roast for a further 1 hr 10 mins.

5. Meanwhile, prepare the spring onions. Cut off the green tops and trim the bulb, so you have a white segment roughly 7.5cm long. Make a 2.5cm lengthways cut at one end, then roll the spring onion 90 degrees and make another 2.5cm-long cut. Repeat this process at the other end. Soak the spring onions in iced water for a few minutes until they curl into flower brushes, then pat dry with kitchen paper or a clean tea towel.

6. Remove the duck from the oven and let it sit for at least 10 mins. Use a cleaver or sharp knife to carve the duck, then arrange the pieces on a warm serving platter. Serve with the Chinese pancakes, spring onion brushes and hoisin sauce or sweet bean sauce.

The images in this piece were styled by Jennifer Joyce.

Published in Issue 12 (summer 2021) of National Geographic Traveller Food

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