Peking Duck is a well known dish from Beijing that has been prepared since the imperial era. The meat is prized for its thin, crisp skin, with authentic versions of the dish serving mostly the skin and little meat, sliced in front of the diners by the cook. Ducks bred specially for the dish are slaughtered after 65 days and seasoned before being roasted in a closed or hung oven. The meat is eaten with spring onion (scallion), cucumber and sweet bean sauce with pancakes rolled around the fillings. Sometimes pickled radish is also inside, and other sauces (like hoisin sauce) can be used.
Preparing the Ducks
The ducks used to prepare Peking Duck originated in Nanjing. They were small, had black feathers, and lived in the canals around the city linking major waterways. With the relocation of the Chinese capital to Beijing, supply barge traffic increased in the area. Often these barges would spill grain into the canals, providing food for the ducks. By the Five Dynasties, the new species of duck had been domesticated by Chinese farmers. Black feathered birds fell out of favour once, with the invention of refrigeration, birds were sold in the marketplace pre-plucked.
Nowadays, Peking Duck is prepared from the white feathered Pekin duck (Anas platyrhynchos domestica). Newborn ducks are raised in a free range environment for the first 45 days of their lives, and force fed 4 times a day for the next 15–20 days, resulting in ducks that weigh 5–7 kg (11–15 lbs). The force feeding of the ducks led to an alternate name for the dish, Peking Stuffed Duck .
Fattened ducks are slaughtered, plucked, eviscerated and rinsed thoroughly with water. Air is pumped under the skin through the neck cavity to separate the skin from the fat. The duck is then soaked in boiling water for a short while before it is hung up to dry. While it is hung, the duck is glazed with a layer of maltose syrup, and the inside is rinsed once more with water. Having been left to stand for 24 hours, the duck is roasted in an oven until it turns shiny brown.
Peking Duck either is traditionally roasted in a closed oven or hung oven. The closed oven is built of brick and fitted with metal griddles. The oven is preheated by burning Gaoliang sorghum straw at the base. The duck is placed in the oven immediately after the fire burns out, allowing the meat to be slowly cooked through the convection of heat within the oven.
The hung oven was developed in the imperial kitchens during the Qing Dynasty and adopted by the Quanjude restaurant chain. It is designed to roast up to 20 ducks at the same time with an open fire fuelled by hardwood from peach or pear trees. The ducks are hung on hooks above the fire and roasted at a temperature of 270°C (525°F) for 30–40 minutes. While the ducks are cooking, the chef may use a pole to dangle each duck closer to the fire for 30-second intervals. Almost every part of a duck can be cooked. The Quanjude Restaurant even served their customers the “All Duck Banquet” in which they cooked the bones of ducks with vegetables.
The cooked Peking Duck is traditionally carved in front of the diners and served in three stages. First, the skin is served dipped in sugar and garlic sauce. The meat is then served with steamed pancakes, spring onions and sweet bean sauce. Several vegetable dishes are provided to accompany the meat, typically cucumber sticks. The diners spread sauce, and optionally sugar, over the pancake. The pancake is wrapped around the meat with the vegetables and eaten by hand. The remaining fat, meat and bones may be made into a broth, served as is, or the meat chopped up and stir fried with sweet bean sauce. Otherwise, they are packed to be taken home by the customers.
Whole Peking Ducks can be ordered as takeaways. The ducks can be reheated at home with an oven, grill or boiling oil. When an oven is used, the duck is heated at a temperature of 150°C (300°F) for 20 minutes, and then at 160°C (325°F) for another 10 minutes. The grilling method involves filling the duck with boiling water before placing it on a griddle, 70 cm (28″) above the cooking fire. The boiling water is replaced every 3–4 minutes until the duck’s skin is piping hot. To reheat the Peking Duck with oil, the duck is sliced into thin pieces and placed in a strainer held over a wok of boiling oil. The duck is then rinsed several times with the oil.
Peking Duck Recipe
- 2.25 kg whole duck, plucked and cleaned
- salt and freshly ground white pepper, to taste
- 4½ tablespoons honey
- 4 tablespoons Chinese five-spice powder
- 2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon cornflour
- ½ cup hoisin sauce
- ½ cup caster sugar
- 1½ tablespoons sesame oil
- ¾ tablespoon dark soy sauce
- Peking Duck pancakes
- 3 spring onions, sliced into long thin strips
- 1 cucumber, cored and sliced into long thin strips
- Prick the duck all over with a small knife or fork. Carefully pour hot water over the duck to rinse. Discard the hot water.
- Place on a rack in a roasting pan and pat dry with paper towels.
- Sprinkle the duck with salt and pepper and leave it in the roasting pan until ready to cook.
- In a small bowl, mix the honey, 4½ tablespoons water, five-spice powder, soy sauce and brown sugar.
- Brush the duck all over, inside and out. Allow to dry for 10 minutes and then brush again.
- Repeat until you have used all but 3 - 4 tablespoons of the glaze (reserve this glaze). (If possible leave the duck to marinate overnight, leaving it uncovered in the fridge).
- Preheat the oven to 175°C.
- Place the duck in the oven and cook for 45 minutes.
- Flip the duck over; baste with the reserved glaze and cook until the skin is crisp and golden brown, another 45 minutes. (Make sure you check halfway through that it is not getting too dark. If it is getting too dark before half the cook time is up, turn your heat down and lower the rack in the oven.)
- When the duck is cooked, remove from the oven and let rest while you make your sauce.
- In a small bowl, mix the cornflour with 1 tablespoon cold water and set aside.
- Heat a pan or wok over medium heat and add the hoisin sauce, caster sugar, sesame oil and soy sauce.
- When the sauce starts to bubble slightly, add the cornflour mixture and stir well to thicken. Set aside and allow to cool.
- Carve and slice some duck.
- Place a teaspoon of the sauce in the centre of each pancake, add 2 slices of duck, 2 strips each of spring onions and cucumbers, and serve immediately.