Smoked Tea Duck


Preparation info

  • Difficulty


  • Serves


    as a main course .

Appears in

This is an ethereal duck, traditionally smoked over jasmine tea leaves and pungent camphorwood, and here flavored by the tea in the company of more easily obtained spices. The result is a richly perfumed bird with an incredibly crisp skin, a thin layer of delicately seasoned fat, and a memorably tender flesh.

  • The transformation from raw duck to smoked duck involves four separate steps, each leisurely, and requiring no particular expertise. Even the deep-frying, the final step that crisps the skin, is a quick, clean, and easy affair. The duck must be started at least 1½ days in advance, but you may begin a full 5–6 days ahead if you wish, making this an ideal dish for weekend entertaining when you have a busy week.
  • This is a party dish, worthy of a birthday, an honored guest, or a special seduction.


  • 3½–4½ pound duck, fresh-killed best (weight after removal of head, neck, feet, wingtips, tail, and oil sacs)

For marinating the duck

  • 3 tablespoons coarse kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons Szechwan brown peppercorns
  • teaspoons finely minced, home-dried orange or tangerine peel
  • 1 teaspoon finely minced fresh ginger

For smoking the duck

  • ½ cup dry jasmine tea leaves
  • ½ cup packed brown sugar, light or dark
  • ½ cup raw rice
  • 5 finger lengths home-dried orange or tangerine peel, torn into small pieces
  • 5 tablespoons Chinese cassia bark, broken into small bits before measuring, or three 2-inch cinnamon sticks, broken into small bits
  • 6–7 cups corn or peanut oil, for deep-frying


Marinating the duck to season it

At least 1½ days in advance of serving, marinate the duck.

First, remove the oil sacs and clean the duck meticulously. Then, blot dry inside and out.

Combine the salt and Szechwan peppercorns in a dry, heavy skillet. Put the skillet over moderate heat and stir until the salt turns off-white, about 4–5 minutes. Expect the peppercorns to smoke but do not let them scorch.

Grind the hot mixture to a powder in the dry work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel knife (processing for 2 minutes continuously), or in a spice mill, blender, or mortar. Strain through a fine sieve to remove the peppercorn husks, then combine with the minced orange peel and ginger.

Rub ⅔ of the mixture evenly over the outside of the duck, including the hidden spots under the wings and thighs, then rub the remaining ⅓ evenly throughout the cavity. Put the duck breast side up in a shallow plate to hold it snugly, cover airtight with plastic wrap, then set aside to marinate 24 hours at room temperature, turning the duck over midway through marination. For a more intense flavor, or if more convenient, the duck may be refrigerated an additional 24 hours and turned an additional time. Bring to room temperature before smoking.

Smoking the duck to flavor, scent, and color it

Prepare the pot, rack and lid for smoking as described. Combine the smoking ingredients, then spread them over the bottom of the pot. Fit the rack about 1 inch above the smoking mixture.

Drain the duck of the accumulated liquids, then pat it thoroughly dry, inside and out, with paper towels. Put the duck breast side up on the rack.

Set the uncovered pot over high heat until the smoking ingredients begin to send up thick plumes of smoke in several places, 4–10 minutes, depending on the vitality of your burner and the thickness of the pot. Once you are sure that the process is underway, cover the pot securely and crimp the foil loosely shut (tight enough to keep the smoke in and loose enough so that you can undo it without tearing when it comes time to turn the bird over). Reduce the heat to medium-high, then smoke the duck for 20 minutes. If you see that by lowering the heat the telling plume of smoke seeping from the “escape hatch” has faded to a mere wisp, then restore the heat to high. This will vary from stove to stove.

At the end of 20 minutes, remove the pot from the heat, then carefully undo the foil seal and slowly lift the lid away from you (ideally, near an exhaust fan, an open window, or out on the back porch). The duck should be a deep golden brown. If it is not, indicating that the heat under the pot was too feeble to generate the needed gutsy smoke, then sprinkle an additional ¼ cup sugar around the edges of the smoking ingredients, and repeat the process for 10 minutes over high heat, first waiting until the sugar begins to bubble and smoke convincingly before you cover the pot and begin counting the 10 minutes.

When the bird is a deep golden brown, remove it from the smoker, first tilting it to drain the cavity of the hot liquids that have accumulated during smoking. Then wrap the burnt smoking ingredients in the tin foil lining the pot and the lid and dispose of them promptly. They are the culprits in smelling up the kitchen.

Once the duck is smoked, proceed immediately to steam it.

Steaming the duck to cook it

(For details on steaming and how to improvise a steamer.)

Fit a well-oiled rack into a Pyrex pie plate or heatproof dish large enough to hold the duck and at least 1 inch smaller in diameter than your steamer. Put the duck breast side up on the rack, so it will not steam in its own juices. Bring the water in the steamer to a gushing boil, then add the duck to the steamer. Pause briefly for the steam to rise up around the plate, then cover the steamer and reduce the heat to medium-high. Steam the duck for 1½ hours. Midway through steaming, drain the pie plate of the duck juices rendered during steaming if they threaten to overflow it, using a bulb-top baster.

At the end of 1½ hours, turn off the heat. Let the steam subside for 5 minutes, then slowly lift the lid away from you and uncover the steamer.

Transfer the rack with the duck still on top of it to a baking tray, to catch the drippings as the duck cools, then set the duck aside in an airy place. Pat it dry inside and out with paper towels, and tip the bird every 10 minutes or so for 30 minutes to drain the cavity of juices. For best results, let the duck cool and dry completely before frying. Turn it over midway through cooling so the bottom dries as well.

Once cool, the duck may be fried directly or bagged airtight and refrigerated 2–3 days. Bring to room temperature before frying.

Deep-frying to crisp the skin and turn it deep brown

About 15–20 minutes before serving, heat a wok or a deep, heavy skillet large enough to hold the duck with room to spare over high heat until hot. Add the oil, leaving about 2½ inches free at the top of the pot to account for displacement by the duck and bubbling. (The drier the duck is, the less bubbling there will be.) Heat the oil to the dense-haze stage, 400° on a deep-fry thermometer, when a bit of duck skin tweaked from the tail region rises instantly to the surface with a crown of white bubbles.

While the oil is heating, ready a baking tray lined with a triple thickness of paper towels to drain the duck after frying. Have the tray, a long-handled heatproof ladle, and a large Chinese mesh spoon or two slotted spoons to retrieve the duck from the oil all within arm’s reach. Put a serving platter of contrasting color in a low oven to warm. If you have not allowed the duck sufficient time to cool and dry, have a large wok or pot lid nearby to hold above the pot, angled away from you, to shield yourself from possible spatters. (This sounds terribly foreboding, but be assured that the dramatic fizzle dies down within about 30 seconds after the duck enters the oil.)

Once the oil is properly hot and has been tested with a bit of the duck skin, dip the mesh spoon into the oil to heat it, then lower the duck gently into the oil on the spoon, breast side up. It will bubble on contact. Fry the duck until the skin is a deep brown and feels crisp when you tap it with the ladle, about 5–7 minutes. Keep the heat on high to maintain as close to 400° as possible and use the ladle to baste the top of the duck constantly as it fries. Expect it to bubble heartily and to occasionally spurt oil from the cavity and shield yourself as needed with the lid, holding it above the pot (never covering the pot) and tilted away from you. (Again, this sounds terribly dramatic, but it is not. The bubbles stay nicely in the pot and there are some ducks that do not spurt at all, but it is wise to be forearmed!)

Once the duck is properly brown and crisp, turn off the heat. Lift the duck from the oil balanced securely on the big Chinese mesh spoon, pause briefly to let the excess oil drip back into the pot, then transfer the duck to the paper-towel drain. Tilt the duck to drain the cavity (you can do this above the pot if you have two mesh spoons and hold the duck securely in place between them), then pat the duck dry with paper towels.

Transfer the duck to a chopping board, then let it cool for several minutes to firm the flesh a bit for neater cutting. With a sharp, thick-bladed Chinese cleaver or a carving knife and poultry shears, sever the wings and legs from the body. Next, cut the duck in half lengthwise through the middle of the breast and along one side of the backbone. Remove the backbone, if you like, and discard it or put it aside for gnawing on in private. Cut the two duck halves in half lengthwise, to make 4 pieces, then cut each piece crosswise into rectangular strips about 1 inch wide. It is typical in China to whack the legs crosswise into 2 pieces for eating with chopsticks, but I like to leave them intact for this dish.

Once cut, arrange the duck pieces attractively on the heated platter, with the legs and wings rimming the platter and the prettiest pieces on top. Camouflage the less successfully chopped pieces with sprigs of fresh watercress or coriander, then serve at once, accompanied if you like by Flower Rolls. The idea of this partnership is to enfold a piece of duck and skin in a piece of the warm steamed bread, the bread being the perfect balance for the natural richness and oiliness of the duck.

Leftovers may be refrigerated for several days, sealed airtight. They are savory at room temperature and taste especially good if shredded in a salad of crisp greens.