Chinese food just seems tricky to make. Exotic spices cooked rapidly at high temperature in oil-slick, blackened woks, the tongues of blue-tipped flame licking over the edges, and a cascade of vegetables kicked into the air with a flick of the agile chef’s wrist. Too hard to do here in Europe, with ingredients too tough to find. Plus, I’m stuck with an induction stove top, which makes it impossible to cook with a wok properly.
But what of the famous Peking Duck recipe? This is the best-known (and according to my research, most-ordered) dish on Chinese menus outside of China. It was even named by The Huffington Post as the #1 dish in the world to “try before you die.” And they do also eat it in China, so it can reasonably qualify for our Cooking the Classics series. Wander any Chinatown (or a town in China) and you’ll spot shop and restaurant windows festooned with dangling maroon or orange ducks (occasionally flanked by a disturbingly orange squid). Eaten as a miniature smorgasbord, with chopped cucumber or scallion or radish, hoisin sauce, pancakes, and a pile of chopped meat, the inside soft, the skin crackling-crisp, it is a centerpiece feast. And I mean to make it.
The dish dates back to imperial China, though the exact date of origin is unknown. Surely cooks have been roasting duck for as long as they could catch them, but the multi-part incarnation of this dish is specific to the city once known as Peking, now Beijing. When we talk of old recipes, in Europe we generally mean two-hundred years old. China is a rather different story. A recipe for roast duck, called shaoyazi, appears in a cookbook called Complete Recipes for Dishes and Beverages written by Hu Sihui, an inspector of the imperial kitchens, in 1330! By the time the Ming Dynasty rolled around, Peking Duck was featured in feasts with regularity, though the multiple accompaniments are not in the original recipe. A specialist restaurant called Bianyifang, which opened in the Qianmen neighborhood of the city then called Peking in…wait for it…1416. This is no trendy, new pop-up dish, but one with centuries of pedigree!
The history of pecking duck recipe
What the original recipe looks like is similar to roast suckling pig, with the emphasis on melt-in-your-mouth meat and a toffee-colored crispy skin that cracks into caramelized shards. But the origins of the “modern” preparation method, “hung duck,” in which the ducks are roasted while hanging vertically in an oven (which allows the fat to drip off, basting the skin as it does so), is attributed to Yang Quanren, owner of the Quanjude restaurant in Beijing, established in 1864. In the 20th century, Peking Duck was the national culinary symbol of China, enjoyed by Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon on their diplomatic visits to China in the early 1970s. Their publicly-stated enthusiasm for Chinese food, particularly from the Beijing region, helped launch the American craze for Chinese food (and hence adaptations to the American palette and available ingredients, like my beloved General Tso’s Chicken.
How to make peking duck at home
Could I make Peking Duck at home? The answer turns out to be an optimistic “sort of.” I can’t get the traditional key ingredient, Nanjing ducks. But I can get a decent duck. The crackling skin comes from a trick that I can’t do at home. Air is forcefully pumped through the neck cavity to push the skin away from the fat. This is the main trick to get crispy skin. If the fat touches it and starts to melt, it stews the skin, constantly basting it. This tastes good, but it doesn’t allow the skin to get crispy enough. Without a ducky air pump, to hand, I’m left to try to slide a knife underneath the skin and pull it away from the fat. But I don’t want to puncture the skin, and I quickly give up. But how do they get the skin so sweet? Before cooking the skin should be dry, so the duck is hung vertically after a quick soak in boiling water. While hung, a layer of maltose syrup coats the outside and it hangs for a day. I can’t find maltose syrup, but maple syrup acts as a stand-in. Consider it Canadian Peking Duck. I don’t have a “hung oven,” developed in the imperial kitchens and capable of roasting dozens of ducks at once over an open fire made of Gaoliang sorghum straw, with a series of chains from which they can hang and be rotated as needed closer to the fire, then further away. Not sure where in my apartment I can fit a giant open flame with two dozen ducks hanging from chains above it (my landlord probably wouldn’t approve), and I can’t seem to get my hands on Gaoliang sorghum straw here in Slovenia. So I’m already striking out. What I end up is basically a nice, tasty roasted duck with sweet, mildly crispy skin and a faint Chinese tinge thanks to the Five Spice Mix I used (the only Chinese-ish spices I can easily locate). I buy frozen pancakes, premade hoisin sauce, and slice my own cucumbers and scallions. The end result tastes good, but it ain’t no Peking Duck. Better leave it to the experts…