Fragrant, Crispy Duck

Xiangsu Ya

Preparation info

    Appears in

    Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook

    By Ellen Schrecker

    Published 1976

    • About

    Flavor: UniqueMeal: Easy, Made in Advance

    Peking Duck is a much overrated bird. Its preparation and consumption are attended by so much ceremony that it is easy to forget that it is, after all, only a plain roast duck. And, propaganda aside, ducks are capable of greater things gastronomically.

    In Szechwan, they achieve them. The two best Chinese ducks come from there, Camphor Smoked Duck and xiangsu ya, or Fragrant, Crispy Duck, often called Szechwan Duck. The former is indescribable, while the latter is merely the crispest and most fragrant bird I have ever eaten. Its rich flesh is soft and aromatic and its skin is dry and crunchy. Even its bones are delicious, as crisp and brittle as potato chips, but with a deep, perfumy flavor. Fragrant, Crispy Duck reaches this state of perfection by being first marinated, then steamed, then dried, and then, finally, fried.

    Fragrant, Crispy Duck, like Peking Duck, cannot really be made at home. The dish needs the expertise and, above all, the special equipment that only a restaurant kitchen and a trained chef can provide. The kind of deep-fat frying required to produce the duck’s transcendent crispness has to be a professional operation. A good home cook can, however, approximate the fragrance, if not the crispness, of a xiangsu duck. This is what Mrs. Chiang has been able to do. Her recipe for this Szechwanese classic is an excellent one; it produces a tender, aromatic bird with a crisp and flaky skin, the whole permeated with the special fragrance of Szechwan peppercorns. It takes hours of marinating for the aromatic spices of Szechwan to penetrate the flesh and bones of the duck, so give yourself at least an entire day to prepare it. The longer you dry and fry it, the crisper it gets. This recipe can also be used for making an equally fragrant, crispy chicken. In that case, reduce the steaming time from 2 hours to 1 hour 20 minutes.

    Tradition demands that a xiangsu ya be served with a dish of seasoned salt and Steamed Flower Rolls, or huajuan. You dip a crisp, fragrant piece of duck into the salt and then eat it encased in the soft, sweet bread. It is, I think, the greatest eating pleasure in the world.



    1 duck (about 4-½ pounds) Wash the duck well, especially on the inside. Pat it dry with paper towels. Then, to make sure that it is thoroughly dry, hang it up for about 30 minutes. (Since you will have to drain the duck this way later, it is a good idea to devise a convenient way to hang it up. Mrs. Chiang simply ties the duck’s legs together with string, which she then hangs from a conveniently placed hook over the kitchen sink. It’s not elegant, but it allows the air to circulate freely around the drying bird, which is the only thing that matters.)

    3 whole star anise or the equivalent in pieces

    cup salt

    ½ cup Szechwan peppercorns

    Break up the star anise into little pieces and put them in a pan with the salt and Szechwan peppercorns. Place the pan over a medium flame and stir-fry the spices for 4 or 5 minutes, using your cooking shovel or spoon in a continuous motion to spread them around in the bottom of the pan. Remove the spice mixture from the pan when it has become very fragrant and the salt has turned a pale tan in color.
    (duck) Rub 2 or 3 tablespoonfuls of the hot salt and spice mixture into the cavity of the duck; rub the rest into the skin. Put the duck in a shallow bowl and set it aside to marinate for at least 6 hours or overnight. Turn it over at least once while it is marinating; you don’t have to refrigerate it.
    3 scallions Clean the scallions, then cut them, both white part and green, into 2-inch lengths.
    3-inch piece of fresh ginger Peel the ginger and cut it into slivers about ⅛ inch wide, the width of a wooden matchstick.


    1 tablespoon soy sauce

    Don’t scrape the salt marinade off the duck. Stuff a few tablespoonfuls of the ginger and scallions into the duck’s cavity and cover the duck with the rest. Sprinkle the soy sauce over the duck and put it aside to marinate again, this time for about 4 hours, turning it over a few times during the marinating period.


    (duck) Place the shallow bowl containing the duck and its marinade on the rack of a steamer partly full of boiling water. (If you do not own a steamer, go here for instructions on how to improvise one.)
    ½ cup rice wine or dry sherry

    Pour the wine over the duck. Adjust the flame under the steamer so that the water inside is boiling steadily. Cover the steamer and cook the duck for 2 hours, checking the water level inside the steamer occasionally and adding more water, if necessary. The duck will render a lot of fat while it steams.

    Remove the duck from the steamer, let it cool off for a few minutes, and then hang it up to dry for at least 1-½ hours. Make sure there is something underneath the duck to catch the juices that will drip from it.

    Untie the duck. Use poultry shears or a cleaver to cut the duck in half down the backbone and along the breastbone. Scrape off all the spices and little bits of scallion and ginger that may still be sticking to the duck.

    2 tablespoons soy sauce

    ½ cup (all-purpose) flour, approximately

    Sprinkle the soy sauce all over the duck, then coat the duck with the flour, patting it in carefully.
    3 or more cups peanut or other cooking oil Heat a large wok or pan over a high flame for 15 seconds, then pour in the oil. It will take several minutes for the oil to get hot enough for cooking; wait until it just barely begins to smoke.
    (duck) When the oil is ready, put in one of the duck halves. Fry it for 2½ or 3 minutes, turning it several times to make sure every side is exposed to the hot oil. (Chopsticks are good for handling food in hot oil.) When the duck has turned golden brown on all sides and is very crispy, remove it from the hot oil and drain it on some paper towels. Fry the other half of the duck in the same way.


    Let the duck cool for a few minutes before you cut it into serving pieces.

    First, cut off the drumsticks. Then use your cleaver or poultry shears to cut the rest of the carcass, bones and all, into slices about ¾ inch wide.

    Arrange the duck decoratively on a serving platter. (Mrs. Chiang usually tries to re-form a cut-up fowl into its original shape.) It is best eaten slightly warm.

    Traditionally, Fragrant, Crispy Duck is always accompanied by some kind of delicately steamed or fried bread. Steamed Flower Rolls or huajuan, are what Mrs. Chiang always serves. She also serves a dish of seasoned salt for dipping the individual pieces of crunchy duck into.

    1-½ teaspoons salt

    1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

    Prepare the seasoned salt by combining the salt and pepper and then setting it out in small dishes for each diner to dip his piece of duck in.