Peking Duck is a famous duck dish from Beijing. The meat is prized for its thin, crisp skin, with authentic versions of the dish serving mostly the skin and little meat, sliced in front of the diners by the cook. Ducks bred specially for the dish are slaughtered after 65 days and seasoned before being roasted in a closed or hung oven.
The ducks used to prepare Peking Duck originated in Nanjing. They were small and lived in the canals around the waterways connecting the city. Often, barges would spill grain into the canals, providing food for the ducks and to fatten them up ready for capture and cooking. Nowadays, newborn ducks are raised in a free range environment for the first 45 days of their lives, and force fed 4 times a day for the next 15-20 days, resulting in ducks that weigh around 6kg.
Fattened ducks are slaughtered, plucked, eviscerated, and rinsed thoroughly with water. Air is pumped under the skin through the neck cavity to separate the skin from the fat. The duck is then soaked in boiling water for a short while before it is hung up to dry. Having been left to stand for 24 hours, the duck is roasted in an oven until it turns shiny brown.
Peking Duck is traditionally roasted in either a closed oven or hung oven. The closed oven is built of brick and fitted with metal griddles. The oven is preheated by burning straw at the base. The duck is placed in the oven immediately after the fire burns out, allowing the meat to be slowly cooked through the convection of heat within the oven. Then the ducks are hung on hooks above the fire. While the ducks are cooking, the chef may use a pole to dangle each duck closer to the fire.
The cooked Peking Duck is traditionally carved in front of the diners and served in three stages. First, the skin is served dipped in sugar and garlic sauce. The meat is then served with steamed pancakes, spring onions, and sweet bean sauce. Several vegetable dishes are provided to accompany the meat, typically cucumber sticks. Finally, the remaining fat, meat and bones may be made into a broth.
Wherever I am in the world, I am always on the look out for some delectable duck – the taste just drives me “quackers”! It may not be cheap, but you will certainly get what you pay for, especially in fine dining restaurants. The Fairmont Hotel in Beijing must be an award-winner when it comes to the succulence and tenderness of its duck. Some of the finest Peking Duck I have had, though, was in the night markets of Wangfujing in Beijing. Of course, in a market, you are only getting some slices of meat, so it doesn’t have the visual appeal as what you would get at the table as the waiter carves it in front of you. However, the taste is the main thing!
Shanghai has its own version of Peking Duck, which is known as something like the “Hanging Roast Duck”, whereas in the Cantonese cuisine of Guangdong Province and Hong Kong, all rotisserie items are known as “Siu Mei”, and this can include lots of roasted ducks, as well as chickens, and even pigs! But the best place to try the authentic oven-cooked Peking Duck is of course in the Chinese capital – it makes me want to head back to Beijing right now…