In China, the roasting of Peking Duck is so highly regarded that chefs specialize in it, and some restaurants serve only Peking Duck dinners. Ducks are bred and raised especially for this dish: they are force-fed much as the French force-feed geese for foie gras. The birds’ movements are restricted so that their flesh stays tender and juicy. The ducks are roasted in special ovens over a fire of dried jujube date, peach, and pear branches to give the skin and meat a unique fragrance. Then the duck is served in an elaborate, multicourse dinner that often includes special dishes made from the wings, webbed feet, and even the tongues.
Three courses are essential: first, the breast meat and crackling crisp skin are served with scallion brushes, hoisin sauce, and thin pancakes; second, the dark meat is stir-fried with vegetables; and third, a rich duck soup is made by simmering the bones in chicken stock.
The traditional method of making Peking Duck probably originated in the imperial kitchens during the Ming dynasty in the seventeenth century. In China one would not cook Peking Duck at home because a home kitchen simply is not equipped for it. Fortunately, the American oven makes it possible to come very close to the authentic dish.
Of all the elaborate banquet dishes in Chinese cuisine, this is the most glorious. It produces the ultimate duck—super-crisp skin with, all the fat melted off, and meat that is tender and moist. Although it requires a great deal of preparation, much of it can be done well in advance and in easy stages. Because of the time and effort involved, prepare at least two ducks and invite as many guests as you can accommodate. Allow one duck for every four people. It takes little additional time to prepare a second duck.
The first step is to inflate the duck, forcing air between the skin and flesh so that the skin roasts crisp and the fat melts, basting the meat. This requires a duck with its head attached, so that the neck skin can be tied off to keep the duck inflated. In China, a sorghum stalk is used as a tube through which air is blown into the duck. An air compressor or a bicycle pump is much more effective, however. If you don’t have one, or if you cannot obtain a duck with its neck intact, there is an alternate method: massage the duck all over, slowly working the skin away from the fat, taking care not to tear it. The skin won’t be as evenly crisp, but it will be quite acceptable.
The second step is to scald the duck in boiling water, then hang it to dry. The scalded skin dries better. The duck is dried in front of a fan to hasten the process. It is then basted with malt sugar to give it a rich golden color and allowed to dry again before it is finally roasted.
Once the duck is roasted, it is ready for the final preparations: cutting up the breast meat and skin to serve with the pancakes, shredding the dark meat and preparing the vegetables for stir-frying, and putting the bones in a stockpot to make the third and last course, duck soup.
The inflating, scalding, and drying may be done the day before; the pancakes and the scallion brushes may be made in advance, too.
The proportions that follow are for two ducks that will serve eight people.
Roasting, stir-frying, braising
Ideally, every part of the skin should roast crisp, which is why in China the ducks are hung from a pole rather than set on a rack. If you have a commercial-sized convection oven, you might try hanging the duck in it. The result is very close to authentic.
The effort it takes to produce the perfect duck demands an elaborate presentation, something that shows why this dish was once served only to emperors. Although every chef has his own favorite presentation, the following one seems to suit the American knack for showmanship without requiring that too much time be spent away from the table.
Well before your guests arrive, make the pancakes and the scallion brushes, put the hoisin sauce on the table, and prepare the soup and the vegetables for stir-frying. As the ducks finish roasting, steam the pancakes so that they will be hot.
The first course should be served hot, while the skin is still crisp and the meat warm. So the first step, illustrated below, is to cut up the skin and the breast meat and send it out to your guests with the hot pancakes and scallion brushes. Before you join them, quickly shred the dark meat for stir-frying so that you don’t have to clean the cleaver and cutting board a second time. Drop the bones into the broth to simmer, then you can join your guests in wrapping a slice of breast meat, a piece of crisp skin, a dab of hoisin, and a scallion brush in a pancake.
When you return to the kitchen, it takes only a couple of minutes to stir-fry the dark meat with the vegetables. By the time that is served, the broth with celery cabbage is ready to finish the meal.
© 1981 Ken Hom. All rights reserved.