The Origin of Peking Duck
Peking Duck is a ‘must-try’ specialty for visitors to Beijing and to other places in China for this matter. There has been talk that China will try to enlist this dish and other Chinese specialities on UNESCO’s Global Intangible Cultural Heritage List in the years to come, which so far only includes a few culinary items, among them ‘French haute cuisine’.
Little do people know that this dish actually originated in Nanjing (the South Capital of China for many dynasties in Jiangsu Province) as revealed in a museum that opened earlier this year to mark the 150th anniversary of the ‘Quanjude Restaurant’, once recognized as the best Peking Duck restaurant in China.
As the story goes, Peking Duck was first baked in the Imperial court kitchens of Nanjing and the dish only came to Beijing when the Ming Dynasty Yongle Emperor moved his seat north in the 15th century. In 1864, when Quanjude was established, the owner apparently employed some chefs who had worked in the Imperial Palace. They used the same ‘hanging up technique’ to roast the duck in a clay oven with hardwood from peach or pear trees. They also kept the Imperial way of carving the duck at the table, showcasing their slicing skills in what is, to this date, a veritable ‘tour de force’.
According to Quanjude, which boasts of having sold 196 million ducks around the world, Peking Duck has played its part in Chinese international relations. Its chefs used to accompany Chinese diplomatic missions overseas and the dish used to be served during official banquets.
Closer to us, it is said that former Premier Zhou Enlai once mentioned that ‘Ping-Pong diplomacy’, ‘Maotai diplomacy’ and ‘Roast Duck diplomacy’ were three great manoeuvres in the arsenal of Chinese diplomacy. Incidentally, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, during their landmark visit to China in 1972, were served this dish at the Great Hall of the People.
Serving Peking Duck
Peking duck is prized for its thin, crisp skin, and lean meat. To get there, the process is quite brutal. Fattened ducks are slaughtered, plucked, eviscerated and rinsed thoroughly with water. Then air is pumped under the skin through the neck cavity to separate the skin from the fat so the fat can easily melt during the cooking process.
The duck is then soaked in boiling water for a short while before it is hung up to dry. While it is hung, it is glazed with a layer of maltose syrup/sugary water, and the inside is rinsed once more with water. Having been left to stand for 24 hours, the duck is then roasted in a wood oven until it turns shiny brown and the skin is crispy.
It is usually carved in front of the diners and served in three courses. First comes the skin, then the meat, and finally a soup of the duck’s bones with celery and cabbage. Steamed thin wheat-flour pancakes or steamed wheat-flour “lotus buns,” are served in bamboo baskets. The meat is accompanied with spring onion, cucumber sticks (and sometimes carrot and garlic) and sweet bean sauce. The diners spread sauce over the pancake, which is wrapped around the meat and the vegetables and eaten by hand as a sandwich.
Where to enjoy Peking Duck in Beijing
Traditional and well-established Peking Duck restaurants in Beijing include Quanjude and Bianyifang, both centuries-old establishments, which have their own style: Quanjude is known for using the hung oven roasting method, while Bianyifang uses the oldest technique of closed oven roasting. Both have very large operations visited by loads of tourists, Chinese and foreign, on tours. The “Sick Duck” in Wangfujing and Xiao Wang Fu at Ritan Park are also popular alternatives.
In the up-market brackets, two restaurants are regularly amongst the top Peking Duck restaurant’s yearly listings, namely Dadong and Duck de Chine.
Dadong’s restaurants are named after Mr. Dong Zhenxiang, the owner and former chef. He now operates four restaurants in the city serving thousands of meals a day. While traditional and succulent Peking Duck remains THE star on the menu, he has created his own culinary style blending east and west. The culinary fare is contemporary and creative and totally different from any other Peking Duck restaurant in Beijing.
Duck de Chine operates two restaurants in Beijing, both in courtyard setting with contemporary décor and touches. The menu is more traditional than Dadong’s but the Duck is not carved at the table. It is perfectly served at the right temperature and accompanied with their own sauce and garnishes.
A newcomer, Jing Yaa Tang, the Opposite House’s Chinese restaurant in Sanlitun, opened last year and established itself as one of the top contenders for best Peking Duck. The garnishes include less common options such as garlic chips and melon, while the sauce is blended with crushed dates and honey, turning the whole experience to a different level.
And Made in China, serving authentic Chinese Northern cuisine and located at the Grand Hyatt, still has a host of followers.