Peking Duck

By PAUL MOONEY in Beijing


According to an old Chinese saying, you can’t be a hero until you’ve climbed the Great Wall. Manager Jian of the Qinglongqiao Duck Farm would like to add another prerequisite. She contends that you can’t be a hero until you’ve eaten Peking Roast duck.

“Visit the Great Wall, but don’t forget to dine on Peking roast duck,” Jian advises foreign visitors. “If you come to Beijing and don’t try roast duck, it’s really a pity.”

And, she says, the best ducks come from farms like hers, located in this suburban area near the Summer Palace, which locals say is blessed with rich earth and excellent water. The Qinglongqiao Duck Farm has been raising ducks here along the Jingma Irrigation Canal, which runs out of Kunming Lake, for more than 40 years, says Jian.

“They say the water is quite good here,” she reports. “It comes from Yuquan Mountain and is the water the emperors drank. And it’s also good for ducks.”

Jian takes phone orders as we walk, including one for 100 ducks to be delivered the next day to a roast duck restaurant in the Haidian district. “The white ducks are more tender. They’re fat, but not greasy,” she explains as she jots down another order, this one for 60 ducks, on a blackboard that hangs on the wall of her office at the farm.

Out in the yard, the ducks are segregated into different areas depending on their age. Farmers holding long staffs and voicing a trilling noise gently coax the ducks along; they move in the right direction more or less obediently, quacking all the while. 

It takes 38 to 40 days to raise a duck for the market. During the last few weeks, the ducks are fed a special diet of millet, mung beans, sorghum and wheat chaff. A duck is ready for market when it reaches a weight of about two kilogrammes.

Each morning at 8am, Li Shulin, manager of the Qianmen branch of Beijing’s Bianyifang Roast Duck Restaurant, waits in the kitchen to inspect the several hundred ducks that are delivered each day. We arrive to find more than 200 cleaned ducks hanging overhead in a room beside the kitchen, waiting their turn in the oven.

“We select the best ones, and those that are not up to standard are rejected,” she says. “I’ve worked here 20 years, starting in the kitchen roasting ducks, and working my way up to manager.”

The restaurant, Beijing’s oldest duck restaurant, has two branches. This branch, the main one, employs 20 chefs solely to handle ducks, preparing an average of 200 a day. On weekends and holidays, the figure can rise to as many as 400 or even 500.

At Bianyifang, the customer is allowed to choose the duck for roasting. The chefs then coat the skin of the duck with a syrupy mixture of oil and molasses, which gives it its rich dark-brown color. Air is then pumped into the duck to separate the skin from the layer of fat underneath, ensuring the skin will be well crisped as the bird roasts in the oven. Boiling water is poured in through the rump, which is then plugged. In the oven, the water converts to steam, cooking the duck meat from the inside, while the skin is browned on the outside.

Bianyifang uses the menlu kaoya, or closed-door cooking method, in which the ducks are hung from hooks on the ceiling of a pre-heated gas oven (millet stalks were burned in the old days) so that the birds are browned by the heat radiating from the oven walls. The ducks must be turned regularly during the 40-minute cooking process. 

“This is the original roasting method,” says Li. “The skin is thus golden brown and crisp, and the meat is tender.”

Quanjude, Beijing’s second-oldest duck restaurant, which opened its doors in 1864, during the reign of the Qing emperor Tongzhi, uses a different method. At Quanjude, the ducks are hung on horizontal bars in a specially designed wood-fired wall oven. The only wood used is that of fruit trees such as peach, pear, jujube and date, which produce little smoke. The wood is burned in a fire-pit in the front of the oven, which reflects heat to its roof, slowly and evenly cooking the ducks, which are swathed in the subtle aromas of the wood.

Before carving, the entire cooked duck is usually brought out to the table briefly for the guests to admire. Within five minutes of the duck’s exiting the oven, expert chefs cut it into about 120 thin slices, each one an equal portion of succulent skin and meat.

Diners dip slices of scallion into a tangy, sweet bean sauce and use them to brush one side of a thin pancake. (The sauce was once a specialty in itself, provided by two famous Beijing condiment shops, but now most restaurants make their own.) Next, diners put a few small pieces of duck meat and skin, together with the scallion, on the pancake, roll them inside and devour them. Most restaurants also provide sesame seed buns with the meal. Diners make a small opening in the side of the bun and stuff in the meat, the scallions and the sweet bean sauce.

Depending on the restaurant, anywhere from 20 to 100 accompanying dishes can be made from the duck, using the web, tongue, wings, head, heart, intestines and liver, to name just a few parts. The meal is complete when the waiter delivers to the table a soup made from the duck bones, to help wash down the meal.

Peking duck is no culinary spring chicken. It dates back to the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368), when it was first listed among the imperial dishes in The Complete Recipes for Dishes and Beverages, written in 1330 by Hu Sihui, an inspector of the imperial kitchen. When the imperial capital of the succeeding Ming Dynasty was reestablished at Beijing in the early 15th century, roast duck remained one of the most popular dishes on the imperial court menus.

According to local historical records, the earliest duck restaurant in Beijing was the old Bianyifang Duck Restaurant, which opened its doors during the Jiajing period (1522-1566). In the Qianlong period (1736-1796), roast duck was a favourite with the upper classes. The recipes from the Suiyuan Garden, the famous cookbook written by poet and gourmet Yuan Mei, relates: “Roast duck is prepared by revolving a young duckling on a spit in an oven. The chefs of Inspector Feng’s family excel in preparing this dish.”

Other scholars were inspired to write poems or other words of praise after enjoying a roast duck dinner. “When an official gives a banquet, he will choose dishes to please each of his guests,” says one Qing Dynasty annotation. “for example, Bianyifang’s roast duck.”

Both Bianyifang and Quanjude got a new lease of life following Liberation in 1949, when they became state-owned enterprises. They have expanded over the decades by opening new branches. Recently, though, they have begun to feel the heat of competition from a string of smaller, newer duck restaurants, such as Likang, which has opened seven branches in the capital since 1985.

Likang has sought to expand its market share with such innovative offers as its “duck on wheels” service, by which the restaurant delivers some 3,000 prepared duck dinners per year to homes in Beijing. The duck meals, which are delivered in white vans, are packed in traditional three-tiered baskets. For an additional cost, Likang will even send along a chef to prepare the meal in your home.

Likang used to stage Peking opera performances for its diners but was forced to cancel the programmed out of consideration for their health. “We don’t have the Peking Opera anymore, because the beating of the drums and cymbals was too fast,” explains Liu Yan, a former communist Party administrator turned restaurant manager. “It made the customers eat too quickly.”

The Likang also competes on price with its better-known rivals. Liu says her ducks, which sell for 60 yuan (US$7) apiece, are priced much more competitively than those at Bianyifang or Quanjude. A banquet at Likang, which includes two whole roast ducks, eight cold dishes and eight hot dishes – all made from parts of the duck—can feed ten people for a total cost of 1,500 yuan ($180).

“Our meals appeal to the tastes of the masses,” says Liu. “It doesn’t matter what social class you belong to, everyone can enjoy an inexpensive meal here.”

There are, however, some Beijing residents who can resist the appeal of a molasses-coated roast duck. “When you raise ducks day after day for 20 years, you don’t feel like eating them when you get home,” confesses Section Chief Lu, who has worked at the Qinglongqiao Duck Farm since she was 20 years old. “I almost never eat roast duck.” 


© 2013 Paul J. Mooney