Peking duck: the intricate story of a Chinese classic


The hanging oven technique was developed by chefs in the kitchens of the Forbidden City, where the Qing imperial family had a predilection for roast meats (records show that in 1761, Emperor Qianlong once ate roasted duck eight times in a fortnight). At the end of the 19th century, a former poultry merchant by the name of Yang Quanren introduced it to the Beijing public. After running a street stall selling ducks and chickens for years, in 1864 he opened his own restaurant, Quanjude, recruiting a team of former palace chefs to endow him. Quanjude’s roast duck, with its browned skin and juicy flesh, quickly gained favor with the upper classes and scholars of the city. The restaurant survived the Japanese invasion, Civil War and the Cultural Revolution of the 20th century, becoming one of Beijing’s flagship brands.

The traditional method of making Peking Duck is demanding. First, the white ducks, raised just outside of town, are fattened. Once slaughtered and plucked, a pump is used to drive air between the skin and the flesh to create a taut, plump look once the duck is roasted. The innards are removed through a slit under a wing, leaving the rest of the skin intact, which is tightened with hot water before the duck is blown dry and painted with maltose syrup to help it out. color a rich mahogany. Finally, a little boiling water is poured inside the poultry, which is roasted in a hot oven until the meat is juicy and the skin perfectly crispy.

The duck is served in a ritualistic way. A specialized knife for slicing the duck (pianya dao), with a long, thin and rectangular blade, is necessary to cut the bird in its different cuts: the precious pieces of skin, the “half-moon” slices of meat with the skin attached. , the head and the two strips of meat that run along the spine. It is said that a skilled chef is able to cut each duck into more than 100 pieces. Normally, the skin is savored first, perhaps with a pinch of sugar, followed by the meat with all the trimmings, including not only steamed pancakes, but also crispy, hollow sesame seed pastries that can be stuffed with slices of duck. . Besides white Beijing leek and cucumber, duck can be served with crushed garlic or pickled vegetables.

After the main event, leftover meat can be sautéed with bean sprouts. Most restaurants also make a milky broth using the bones and Chinese cabbage or winter melon. The greatest 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.

Meanwhile, in many Chinese restaurants in London, the much easier-to-make crispy duck is often served with all the Beijing fillings. For this dish, the meat is seasoned, steamed and then simply fried before serving, creating a dish with a very different texture, but delicious flavor, all the same.

In China, as the old stalwarts of Bianyifang and Quanjude rest on their laurels as purveyors of “classic” Peking Duck, they have been largely overtaken by more recent upstarts. In the early 2000s, a newly privatized former state-owned duck restaurant chain was renamed in honor of its charismatic and talented chef, Dong Zhenxiang, known as Da Dong (“Grand Dong “) because of its remarkable size. Da Dong restaurants have become a phenomenon, with their glitzy design, inventive menus, and fabulously high prices, and Dong has become China’s most acclaimed celebrity chef. More recently, Siji Minfu Duck Restaurants have proven themselves with a more affordable Da Dong style.

Some Chinese foodies lament what they see as lower standards, accusing various famous duck restaurants of passing oven-roasted birds to those cooked over the heat of traditional fruit wood fires. Yet there is no doubt that the roaring trade in Peking Duck at various prices has brought this great old dish, once reserved for the elite, within the reach of a larger section of society. A century and a half after the creation of Quanjude, the Peking duck remains a Beijing classic.


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