Peking Duck (properly referred to as Beijing Duck or Beijing kao ya) is one of those iconic dishes that end up becoming famous worldwide and is so well liked that the recipe remains mostly unchanged over time. It’s considered by some to be one of the most delicious recipes in the world and most visitors to the Chinese capital of Beijing (formerly Peking) seek this dish out in order to sample the real thing from one of several famous restaurants in the city such as the centuries old Quanjude and Bianyifang.
Dating as far back as 500 years what was then known as Jiu Duck was recorded in the Shi Zhen Lu or Complete Recipes for Dishes and Beverages, a manual used by Chinese cooks for centuries. It can be traced further back however, during the Song Dynasty, Jiu duck was a renowned dish among popular restaurants of the period. During this time roast duck was not only served as a meal in restaurants and the homes of the people but became a regular addition to the menu at state functions. The recipe was eventually introduced in Dadu, the capital of the Yuan Dynasty(1206-1368), becoming a staple on the menu for the ruling classes. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties the recipe was to become one of the favorite dishes of the royal families. It is said that the name was changed to Peking Roast Duck after it became a favored meal of the Emperor Qian Long and Empress Dowager Cixi and was served to honored guests in the capital city. Once the era of communism began Peking duck was then only a dish of the elite and by the late 1940’s was served in just a handful of Beijing restaurants. Despite this in more recent times the dish continued to gain in popularity, reaching all corners of China where it is now a national dish. Eventually it spread to the rest of the world as immigrants moved to many other countries and brought the recipe with them.
A special breed of duck is exclusively used in the preparing of this dish in China and especially in Beijing. The Pekin duck is a domestic breed that originated from a species of river duck (thought to be mallard) that was harvested after becoming fattened by the spilled grain from barges moving to and from the capital. After some time the ducks were brought to farms and selectively bred over centuries to create the Pekin duck of today, it has a very high fat to meat ratio and is also the common form of domestic duck farmed in the west. In China some of these ducks are farmed specifically for use in Beijing duck houses. While the domestic duck in North America is a descendant of the Chinese pekin duck that was brought to these shores in the 1870’s there are some minor differences, the chief among them being they don’t possess the high fat content that allows for the proper crisping of the skin during roasting. This important difference is not in the animal itself but rather the way it is raised making the birds farmed in China perfect for this dish.
The method used to farm the ducks is very specific. When hatched the ducklings are allowed to be free range for a period of 45 days, after that time they are placed in cages that severely limit their movement and are force-fed grain 4 times a day for a period of 2 to 3 weeks or until they reach a weight of between 11 and 15 pounds. The confinement and force feeding combine to produce a bird that is greatly fattened with the most tender meat possible. When the duck is processed the skin is separated from the underlying fat using compressed air, in essence inflating the skin like a balloon as a first step in the preparation. Some chefs still blow the skin up using their own lungs, though I don’t recommend trying this yourself.
The roasting technique used for Peking duck has changed somewhat from the days of the emperors but the idea and outcome are still the same, prepare the duck in such a way as to produce thin, crispy and flavorful skin with tasty fat and tender meat beneath. This is done through drying the skin for several hours before re-hydrating it with marinade and again drying for up to 24 hours prior to roasting in one of two ways. The first and most traditional method is that of hanging the ducks in open ovens over pear, date or other fruit tree wood coals until shiny and dark brown in color, a method begun in the imperial kitchens of the Qing Dynasty. The other method (which I’ll use a modern version of in the following recipe) is to place the ducks on metal racks in a closed brick oven slowly convection cooking them over the same hot coals. Tradition holds that there is a special mixture of (get this) 11 spices that were placed inside the original ducks cooked for the emperor prior to roasting that is the final step in producing the unique flavor. These spices are said to include licorice root, angelica, goji berry, cassia bark, anise and Szechuan peppers. It’s doubtful this recipe or one similar is still used anywhere outside the most prestigious duck houses in Beijing if even there, far more likely it is lost to history.
Peking Duck is traditionally served in 120 pieces made up mostly of precise slices that contain a thin sliver of meat with larger amounts of flavorful fat and crisp skin attached. In much of the west there is a good deal more meat on each slice, but when served properly the majority of the meat is used in the other two courses served with the duck. These may include Xiang cai bao (san choy bau) which is finely chopped meat that is seasoned then wrapped with a crisp lettuce leaf. Alternately you may get a stir fry of rice or crisp noodles using the duck meat, finally the third course is a simple duck soup. At a nice duck house in Beijing you may even get an entire banquet using all parts of the bird in several dishes. The finished duck is most often brought out and sliced at the table with every piece artfully displayed in layers.
Several things should accompany the duck to the table, these are plates of thinly sliced green onion, bars of cucumber, and the thin crepes or mandarin pancakes also often served with Mu Shu pork to wrap the meat and vegetables. Finally a dish of fermented soy paste sauce or tian mian jiang is given to season the wraps, coming with a stick of green onion fanned at one end to create a brush that can be used to apply the sauce. Outside of China it will likely be hoi sin (haixian) sauce rather than the tian mian jiang which is served.
The following recipe is a more modern version that is close to what you’ll find served in your local Chinese restaurants, although there it is more than likely that the duck has been deep-fried as opposed to roasted- caused by a time constraint issue I’m sure, given you can order a duck and recieve it in 20 minutes. This is not to say what follows is a re-creation but rather a recipe using more readily available ingredients and even then there are recipes I’ve found from China using these same substitutes. These are minor changes from the traditional recipe and since the procedures involved are the important thing- this recipe stands well. I’ll not however be using the step of inflating the skin to separate it from the bird as it is not likely your local restaurant does this either. These changes are to use honey rather than maltose and hoi sin sauce instead of tian mian jiang. Feel free to use the latter items if you find them.
I’m not going to discuss carving the duck into the 120 pieces tradition states as this is a skill requiring much practice and is only likely to be seen in Beijing. As long as both meat and skin are in each wrap you will get the desired outcome. If you want to try carving proper slices and are good with the Christmas turkey then go right ahead. As for the other courses that are served following the duck, they differ from place to place and a nice duck meat noodle stir-fry or fried rice will do for the second course, with a basic duck soup as the third.
- One 5 or 6 pound duck
- 1 package mandarin pancakes (Duck wraps/Chinese crepes)
- ½ large cucumber, seeds removed and cut into 2 inch long ¼ inch thick bars.
- 1 small bunch green onions (lower section only), cut lengthwise into strips
- ¼ cup hoi sin sauce
For the Marinade:
- 8 cups water
- 3 slices ginger(about 1 inch around and not too thin)
- 2 green onions, chopped
- ¼ cup honey (or maltose if you can get it)
- 2 tbsp rice vinegar
- 2 tbsp sherry
- 3 tbsp cornstarch, dissolved in 6 tablespoons water
- Clean the duck, inside and out. Be sure to remove anything from the cavity.
- Completely wipe the duck on the outside making sure all skin is dry.
- Remove outer two sections of the wings (tip & middle section) and trim flap of skin at the neck.
- Stitch any loose skin closed with kitchen string. (Closing the cavity produces more skin area and makes the bird look better when done.)
- Securely tie a length of sting to the neck of the duck. If your bird still has enough neck attached this will be easy, otherwise you can run the string through a puncture you make, ensuring that there is a good amount of flesh to support the weight while hanging.
- Hang the duck in as cool a location as you can, such as a basement and use a fan to create air movement over it. Leave for 4-5 hours.
- In a large pot bring the water to a boil. Add ginger, green onion, honey, vinegar, and sherry. Return to a boil and cook for 5 minutes. Mix in the cornstarch solution, stirring constantly until blended. Remove from heat.
- Place the duck on a cooling rack or in a strainer above a large bowl (I do this with the bowl in the sink). Pour the hot marinade over the duck and continue to ladle the mixture over it for 15 – 20 minutes to allow it to soak into the skin, turning over as necessary to fully coat it.
- Hang the duck again in a cool location with the fan on it for 6 – 8 more hours until thoroughly dry(skin should resemble parchment).
- Once the duck is dry heat the oven to 350°F.
- Place duck with breast side up in the center of the oven on an oiled rack. Place a pan filled with 2 inches of water on the lowest rack to catch drippings.
- Cook for 30 minutes, turn over and cook for 30 minutes more. Turn over again and cook for a final 10 minutes.
- Heat the duck wraps as per instructions on the package.
- Slice the meat off the duck in ¼ inch thick slices, making sure that there is a good amount of skin on each slice. Remove and cut up meat from the legs. Be sure to remove all the skin you can in places with little meat.
- Serve meat and skin immediately on a warm serving dish.
- Assemble by brushing some sauce onto a wrap, adding onion, cucumber, some meat/skin and rolling it up.