Birthday Duck


Preparation info

  • Difficulty


  • Serves


    as a main course .

Appears in

When I was a sophomore at Columbia, suffering through my second year of Chinese, my parents took me for my birthday to an elegant Chinese restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village. I had rehearsed my lines for a week, and when we walked through the door I looked brightly at the beautiful Chinese woman facing us and said—in what must have been preposterously bad Chinese—“We are three people. Have you table or not?” The woman beamed and led us to a table, then helped us to order a pressed duck garnished with almonds that I never forgot. It was the first time I had eaten duck, and the first time I had used my fledgling Chinese.

  • Years later, I spotted a picture of the beautiful woman on the back flap of a cookbook and discovered to my glee that the duck recipe was contained within. The woman was Irene Kuo, and this is my version of “Birthday Duck.”
  • Like most Chinese duck dishes, this one requires several steps that are easily stretched out over 2 to 4 days, though you may do the dish in 1 day if you begin 6–8 hours in advance. The process requires no special equipment and no particular skill, but the result is celestial—a succulent piece of boneless, fat-free duck, surrounded by a brittle-crisp golden coating and drizzled with a sweet and tart pineapple sauce and chopped almonds. The texture is dense and extraordinary.
  • I have given two methods for boning and pressing the duck, the first being the traditional way and the second being a modern adaptation using a food processor. Using the machine compromises nothing in the way of taste and only saves time, but I wanted to record the traditional method as I often use it. If you like to work in advance, you may also freeze the duck before frying it. The coating retains the moisture, and the final product is almost indistinguishable from the fresh.

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

For simmering the duck

  • 2 tablespoons coarse kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or quality, dry sherry
  • 3 quarter-size slices fresh ginger
  • 2 medium whole scallions, cut into 3-inch lengths
  • whole star anise, broken into points (to equal 12 points)
  • 1 thumb-size piece fresh orange or tangerine peel, scraped clean of all white pith, or home-dried orange or tangerine peel (optional) about 10 cups boiling water, to cover

For coating the duck

  • 3 large egg whites, beaten to a light froth
  • cup cornstarch
  • cup water chestnut powder
  • 5–6 cups corn or peanut oil, for deep frying

For the sauce (to yield 1 cup)

  • 1 large clove garlic, stem end removed, lightly smashed and peeled
  • 1 teaspoon corn or peanut oil
  • 4 tablespoons sugar
  • 6 tablespoons unseasoned Chinese or Japanese rice vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons thin (regular) soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons Chinese rice wine or quality, dry sherry
  • 8-ounce can pineapple chunks, preserved in its own juice, no sugar added (to yield ½ cup pineapple purée)
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch dissolved in 3 tablespoons cold water

To garnish

  • cup freshly toasted chopped almonds
  • sprigs of fresh watercress


Cleaning and simmering the duck

With a heavy cleaver or chef’s knife, chop off the neck, wingtips, feet, and tail of the duck. Using the cleaver or poultry shears, cut through the center of the breast bone and along one side of the backbone to divide the duck lengthwise in half. Remove the fat sacs and clean the duck thoroughly, then pat the duck dry. At this point, the duck may be enfolded in a dry, lint-free towel, bagged in plastic, and refrigerated overnight if you are not ready to continue.

With your hands, twist the legs and wings gently but firmly to break the thigh and shoulder bones and make their removal easier later on. Rub the duck halves well with the salt, inside and out. Sprinkle with wine, then place in a large heavy pot to hold them snugly. Smack the ginger and scallion with the broad side or smooth handle end of a cleaver or chef’s knife to spread the fibers and release the juices, then add the ginger, scallion, anise, and orange peel to the pot. Pour in boiling water to cover, bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to maintain a steady simmer. Cover the pot and simmer the duck for 1 hour, checking after 10 minutes to insure that the liquid is simmering and not boiling.

Using a large Chinese mesh spoon, remove the duck halves to a plate to cool. (If you are enamored of duck soup, you may strain and refrigerate the stock, then de-grease, reduce, and season it as you wish.) Once cool, the duck may be refrigerated overnight. (If you are boning it the traditional way, it is easiest to work with when cold.)

Boning and pressing the duck

For boning and pressing the duck in the traditional manner, work carefully with an attention to remove every bone and joint. First, pull the wings free of the body, tearing away as little skin as possible from the breast. Take off whatever meat you can salvage from the wings and put it aside in a small pile. Remove the backbone and pull off any bits of meat clinging to it, adding these to the pile. Next, use your thumbs to release the rib bones, slipping them between the meat and the membrane which connects the bones, then pulling back on the rib cage with your free hand. Finally, twist and extract the leg bones—both the large drumstick and the needle-like small bones—working carefully to keep the meat in as much of one piece as possible. As you remove the bones, pull free and discard any fatty masses, tough tendons, or bony cartilage you discover with your fingers, and put aside any loose slivers of meat. Once the bones are removed (double check that there are none left), use a knife to trim away any tough or rubbery strips of skin from the border of the duck halves, so there is a layer of smooth and unfatty skin covering the duck.

As a last step, slip a finger between the skin and the meat in 2 or 3 places to create several “pockets,” and poke the extra slivers of meat inside. It is a painstaking patch job, but is easy once you get the knack, and there’s no reason to sacrifice even a sliver of delicious duck! When done, you are left with two boned and trimmed duck halves, each with the skin topping a loose collection of meat, and the worst is behind you.

Transfer the first duck half carefully to a large square of wax paper, using a spatula if you like, then push it into a more or less rectangular block with your hands. Neatly fold the paper over the duck on all four sides to form a loose rectangular envelope that will contain the duck while it is being pressed. Repeat with the second duck half and a second piece of wax paper. Put the packages side by side with several inches between them on a flat work surface. Weight evenly under one or more large cutting boards, then pile encyclopedias, stockpots, or other worthy items on top of the boards for a total of about 10 pounds weight. Leave the duck halves for several hours, or until they are fairly compact and about ¾ inch thick. A rush job may be done by pressing down gently but firmly on the board with your upper body weight behind you; this will at least squash the muscle.

If you do not have the time or patience for the traditional method, here is an alternative that produces a round “cake” that needs no pressing or careful wresting free of bones: Tear free the duck skin and put it aside. Remove the bones, fatty masses, tendons, and bits of cartilage, reserving only the duck meat—every sliver of it. Pick through the meat a second time to be sure you have removed every hard or bony bit. Trim away any rubbery pieces of skin, then cut the remaining skin into 1-inch squares. (Do not skimp on the skin; it adds greatly to the savor of the duck.) Cut any large pieces of meat into walnut-size bits. Add the skin to the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel knife, and process until finely minced. Add the meat, then process with on-off turns until the mixture is pea-size and still very coarse. Do not overprocess. If you do not have a food processor, mince the skin finely by hand, chop the meat into pea-size chunks, then combine the two in a bowl, stirring lightly in one direction until well blended. Finally, turn the mixture onto a square of wax paper, then shape gently with wet hands into a round, lightly compacted cake evenly ¾–1 inch thick.

Coating and steaming the duck

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

Sift the cornstarch and water chestnut powder into a pie plate or shallow bowl. In another shallow bowl, beat the egg whites briskly until foamy. Have the duck and a dry flat heatproof plate that will fit your steamer at hand.

If you are working with two duck halves, unwrap the first one and dip it carefully into the egg whites. Coat it on all sides, handling it gently lest it fall apart, then transfer it to the starch-filled pie plate. Spoon the starch mixture over the top and onto the sides to coat it evenly, then lightly blow off any excess and carefully transfer the coated duck half skin side up to the waiting plate. Repeat with the second duck half, then put it alongside the first piece with at least ½ inch between them. If your steamer is not large enough to accommodate a plate that will hold both halves, then use two plates and steam the duck in two batches or on two tiers. (You may well have egg and starch left over, but it is easier to work with more than with less. The leftover starch mixture may be strained through a fine sieve to remove any ducky bits, bagged, and used for the next duck.)

If you are working with a single duck “cake,” dip your hands in the beaten egg white and spread it liberally over the top and sides of the cake. Use a spoon to sprinkle the flour on the top and sides, then lightly blow off the excess. Invert the cake onto the waiting plate, then repeat the process on the uncoated side.

As soon as it is coated, bring the water in your steamer to a gushing boil and steam the duck over medium heat for 30 minutes. During the steaming, the coating will turn somewhat translucent and glossy. If there is a dime-size patch of uncooked starch after 30 minutes, then blow or carefully spoon it off to expose the cooked coating beneath.

Remove the plate from the steamer, blot up any liquid on the plate, then slip the duck carefully onto a second dry plate with the help of a flexible spatula, taking care not to injure the coating and leaving the duck with the original steamed side up. Allow the coating to cool and firm before proceeding to fry the duck.

Once completely cool, the duck may be sealed airtight and refrigerated several days, or frozen several weeks. If you are freezing the duck, be sure that it is double wrapped and that each wrapping is sealed airtight. Defrost the duck in the refrigerator before frying. Whether you refrigerate or freeze the duck, fry it directly from the refrigerator for the crispest possible crust.

Making the sauce

Drain the pineapple chunks and reserve the juice for another use. Add the pineapple to the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel knife or to a blender and process until completely smooth and pale. Combine the sugar, vinegar, soy, and wine, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the pineapple purée, then stir to blend, leaving the spoon in the bowl. Put all the sauce ingredients within easy reach of your stovetop.

Heat a small, heavy saucepan over medium heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add the oil, swirl to glaze the bottom of the pot, then add the garlic and toss until fragrant, about 10 seconds, taking the pot from the burner and swirling it off the heat if the garlic begins to scorch. Stir the pineapple mixture, then add it to the pan. It will hiss and sputter on contact. Let it come to a simmer, stirring, then stir the cornstarch mixture to recombine and add it to the pot. Stir until glossy and slightly thick, about 15 seconds, then turn off the heat. Taste the sauce and adjust with a bit more sugar if you like a sweeter taste.

Cover the pot and let the garlic sit in the sauce as it cools. If you are not frying the duck within the hour, extract the garlic once cool, then seal and refrigerate the sauce until use.

Deep-frying, slicing, and serving the duck

Have the cold duck, a large Chinese mesh spoon, tongs or cooking chopsticks, a baking sheet lined with a triple thickness of paper towels, and some extra paper towels all within easy reach of your stovetop. Put a serving platter of contrasting color in a low oven to warm. Discard the garlic if you have not already done so, and set the saucepan alongside your stove.

Heat a wok or large, heavy skillet over high heat until hot. Add the oil, allowing, at least 1 inch at the top of the pot to accommodate bubbling. Heat to the upper end of the light-haze stage, 375° on a deep-fry thermometer, when a bit of the coating bobs immediately to the surface.

Immediately slip the duck into the oil, then adjust the heat so the duck fries at 350°, surrounded by a ring of merry bubbles. Fry until deeply golden on both sides, about 5 minutes in all, turning the duck once midway through frying. (If your pan can accommodate both duck halves in a single layer, then add the second half to the oil as soon as the first one bobs to the surface. If not, fry in two batches, remembering to allow sufficient time for the oil to reheat between batches, and testing the oil with a bit of uncooked coating before frying the second piece.) Once golden, remove the duck to the paper-towel drain and use the extra towels to blot the top dry.

Transfer the duck to a cutting board and let it cool and firm for several minutes, to enable you to slice it neatly. In the meantime, bring the sauce to a simmer over medium heat, stirring, then cover the pot and remove it from the heat.

If you have fried two duck halves, cut each crosswise into inch-wide bands, chopping with firm strokes for a clean cut. If you have fried the duck in a single round “cake,” then slice it into inch-thick wedges. Transfer the slices to the serving platter, pushing them together in their original shape, then ladle the sauce in several broad bands on top. Sprinkle with almonds, garnish with watercress, and serve promptly. Serve extra sauce in a bowl alongside.

Leftovers are unlikely, but are delicious cold the next day. Leftover sauce may be sealed airtight and refrigerated for several weeks without spoiling. It is very good with simple broiled or grilled chicken.