In Beijing, Peking duck is king
(HANDOUT / March 26, 2012)
BEIJING — Chicago has its hot dogs; Philadelphia adores its cheesesteaks. In Beijing, the culinary icon is Peking duck, a dish as old as the Ming Dynasty.
Beijing is the undisputed world capital of roasted duck. Some cooking manuals trace the dish back to the 1300s, and variations of it have appeared on imperial court menus. Quanjude is one of Beijing's oldest Peking duck houses, established in the 1860s. Its former owner is said to have developed the brick oven-style of roasting whole ducks that is still in use today.
"The traditional way is very greasy, and it's not so healthy," said Da Dong, the chef and owner of three eponymous restaurants in Beijing. He worked at Quanjude in the 1980s, then left in 1985 to open his namesake, which has become one of the city's most fashionable, and yet revered Peking duck houses. "I invented a way to process it that retains more moisture in the meat," he said.
Like most restaurants in Beijing, he buys his ducks from the Jing Xin Farm, but he said that unlike his competitors, he does not insert a tiny hose beneath the skin to pump air and separate it from the meat. He also refrains from hanging the ducks in front of giant fans, which dries them out further. Instead, after the ducks are brushed with maltose syrup and sugar, he transfers them to a refrigerator, where they sit for eight hours, he said. They then move to a freezer for 72 hours and finally, back to the refrigerator for another eight hours.
In the center of Da Dong's latest restaurant, on the fifth floor of a tony shopping mall in the Tuan Jie Hu area, four large brick ovens sit majestically in the center of the main dining room, each holding about a dozen whole ducks, hanging by black iron hooks. Cooks constantly plunge their long, steel-covered wooden poles through the flames, lifting up individual ducks, guiding them over the flames briefly, then pushing them back again, to continue roasting. The entire process takes about an hour.
While Da Dong uses fruit woods, such as almond and apple, other local duck restaurants, like 1949, use only jujube wood, which has to mature 40 years before it can be harvested. At Made in China — tucked within the Grand Hyatt just a few blocks away — the wood is strictly from apricot trees, which gives the duck a unique flavor.
Once the ducks are roasted, they're whisked onto carts and presented tableside. Cooks deftly work their rectangular cleavers, shaving off just the outermost brittle skin at first (which is often sprinkled with sugar at the table, giving the diner a sweet and fatty amuse bouche) then eventually sliced with skin and meat together. The slices at Da Dong are sublime, a crisp-tender mouthful the Chinese call su and what we would describe as succulent. If you ask in advance, some restaurants will prepare a second course of duck soup for you, made from the bones, but it's usually an extra charge. The soup from 1949 was jammed with delicious, ducky flavor.
A steamer basket of homemade, paper-thin pancakes, about the size of a tortilla, is placed onto the table, along with julienned strips of white scallion, fresh cucumber, daikon radish and sweet hoisin or plum sauce. Rolling up the mini package and popping it into your mouth, you look around the table and see everyone smiling, enjoying the delicious contrasts in flavor and texture. Suddenly, the noise of 22 million people falls off in the distance, as you savor a tradition more than 700 years in the making.
Peking duck in Beijing
Be sure to call ahead to place your duck order. Most ducks cost about $40, but they'll easily feed two or three people. (Country code is 86; Beijing code is 10; when in town, you can ignore dialing these first four digits.)
Made in China, Grand Hyatt Hotel: 1 East Chang An Avenue; 86 10 8518 1234, ext. 6024; beijing.grand.hyatt.com
Quanjude: No. 14, Qianmen West Street; 86 10 6304 8987; quanjude.com.cn
1949 – Jin Bao Jie: No. 98 Jinbao St., Dongcheng District; 86 10 6521 2221; for others, see http://www.elite-concepts.com
Da Dong: 5th Floor, Jinbao Dasha, Jinbao Jie, Dongcheng District; 86 10 8522 1234; two other locations.