China is famous for many kinds of exotic foods however depending on which city you visit; there will always be a specialty dish that is characteristic of that area. For Beijing, that dish is traditional Peking duck. The Chinese themselves have a famous saying that no visit to China is complete without climbing the great wall or dining on roast duck. So it’s no wonder we couldn’t resist trying it in a traditional establishment on both my first and second visit to Beijing. Peking duck has a long history behind its origins and sitting down for a traditional meal is one of the best ways to learns about Chinese cuisine, culture and basic dining etiquette.
The history of Peking duck
Many believe that the tradition of eating Peking duck originated with the likes of Marco Polo who brought European dining customs like roasting poultry to China during the Yuan Dynasty which ran between 1271 and 1368. While their European counterparts preferred to roast goose, ducks on the other hand had become a domestic animal in China and was an excellent substitute for goose. That being said, it is also thought that the Northern and Southern dynasties (1127 – 1279) which ran much earlier were already roasting ducks before this.
How is Peking duck made?
The ducks were originally roasted in a convection oven however it soon became a specialty in the Qing Dynasty and a new method of cooking was introduced. The ducks were cooked hanging upright over an open fire to allow more space for any fat to drain down. This also resulted in a much drier but crispier skin.
The process starts with a 100 day old plump Pekinese duck that has been fed to plump up. Once plucked, the chef will pass air through the neck cavity to inflate and separate the skin. This allows for the fat to drain out easily from all sides and also coat the meat as it cooks. After further cleaning and seasoning, the duck is then submerged in boiling water to help tighten the skin. This is followed by a coating of maltose syrup which usually gives a rich shiny color. It is then left to hang and dry for at least 24 hours.
The duck is then cooked by having boiling water poured into its cavity while it is placed inside tall fiery oven that is heated with fruit wood. Its neck is wrapped around a metal hook and it slowly cooks from the inside as the water boils away and from the outside as the fire crisps the skin.
How do you order Peking duck?
When ordering Peking duck, you have an option for a half or whole duck. The price of course depends on the quality of the duck and how it was fed. The more expensive, the longer the duck was fed and as a result it should be more plump and succulent when eaten. For the best experience, it is better to order the whole duck because this not only means more deliciousness for you to eat but if you are in one of the signature restaurants, it also ensures that the chef will come out and carve it in front of you just as it’s taken out the oven.
The duck itself is delicious and can be eaten on its own but a traditional meal consists of eating it with a variety of sides and condiments. It is customary to have a basket bo bing or wheat-based pancakes served together with salad and a tray of condiments containing fermented bean sauce, pickles, pureed garlic and scallion slices.
How do you eat Peking duck?
Any Peking duck experience starts with a range of seasonal fruits that are served to you. Usually a few oranges or pieces of cantaloupe are placed on the table. Once your duck is ready, it will be rolled out on a platter. If you have ordered a whole duck, the chef will begin carving it in front of you. He begins by cutting off the head. This part is the most precious as it contains the brain, which traditionally is intended to be eaten at the end of the meal.
In some restaurants, the skin may then be removed while some prefer to keep it on. Next he slices out pieces of duck breast, followed by removal of the wings, drumsticks and any other meaty sections. Each section of the duck is sliced separately and served on clean individual platters.
Depending on the restaurant, your waiter will then guide you through the next few steps:
Begin by peeling away one of the paper thin wheat pancakes from the bamboo basket and place it on your side plate.
Using your chopsticks, pick up a piece of sliced duck and dip it into the fermented bean sauce.
The duck dipped in fermented bean sauce is then placed at the edge of the pancake.
This is then covered with a little of the pickle varieties in the condiment tray and some pureed garlic. Traditionally Chinese woman are not expected to eat the pureed garlic and the waiter may offer it only to the males at the table. Don’t be offended by this. You can of course still eat it if you wish.
Next place two or three slices of the scallion and cucumber strips over your duck and pickles.
Wrap as you normally would when making western wrap dishes. Start with the bottom and fold this over the top. Flip over each side from left to right and right to left. Eat and enjoy!
Have you tasted Peking Duck? What was your experience like? I’d love to hear about it!