Beijing’s most famous dish, traditional Beijing duck is accompanied by special paper-thin pancakes, minced green onions, long-thin batons of cucumber, and Hoisin sauce—made of fermented wheat flour. It should always be served in well-cut slices. A perfect slice is even and has all three components: skin, fat, meat. The duck is so divine, however, that you can eat it without these trappings, and indeed, a European version of this dish will come soon.
Traditional Beijing ducks are expressly reared. The standards of animal welfare are low: they are kept in cages which restrict their movement and force fed, both of which serve to fatten them up. It is delicious but exceedingly cruel. I humbly ask that you act as a responsible consumer, and do not buy Beijing duck in Chinese restaurants, or buy the duck in Chinese markets. It is easy and ever-so-satisfying to make your own. In the early Fall or very late summer, just before the migration begins, wild duck is abundant and plump from an extended season of eating. Buy several of them fresh, freeze them, and you can be happy year-round.
The preparation of Beijing Duck involves a dry rub, a period of hanging and air drying, followed by roasting in the oven or hung over a fire. They will become crispy and brown with rich grease perspiring outside and smell nutty and delicious.
Traditional Beijing Duck Preparation
- One 5-to-6-pound duck
- Plenty of boiling water
- 1 slice of ginger
- 1 scallion, minced
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 2 tablespoons of 5-spice powder
- 3 tablespoons of molasses
- 2 tablespoons of rice wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoon cooking sherry
- 1 ½ tablespoons of cornstarch, dissolved in 1 cup of boiling water
- 2 tablespoons of salt
The traditional method of preparing this dish involves making a small incision on the side of the neck, inserting a straw, and then blowing into it to separate the skin from the body, then tying it off, leaving a very inflated bird. This facilitates the cooking off of the fat and the making of a very crispy and flavourful skin. This works if you can specify with your butcher how you want your bird. If not, do as indicated below.
The marinade serves to flavour and glaze both skin and meat, adding colour. The alcohol and salt also help to draw out moisture and ensure the eventual crisping of the skin.
Rinse the bird thoroughly inside and out under cold running water. Wipe dry. Tie a string around the neck, securely. Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Submerge the bird completely under the boiling water for a minute, and then pull it out. Let the water come to a boil again and repeat. Do this 4 times.
Set the bird in a shallow pan containing all of the marinade ingredients and turn to coat several times. Seal the body cavity and pour the marinade inside. Hang the bird over a dripping pan in front of a fan and leave to dry with the marinade inside for 4 hours. Paint the bird from time to time with the marinade.
Open the body cavity and drain out the marinade, then leave the bird to fan dry for 24 hours, preferably in a cool place.
Preheat the oven to 190°C/375°F/Gas Mark 5. Place the duck breast side up on a greased rack. Roast the bird for 1 hour and 15 minutes without opening the oven door. Remove the duck and let it rest for 10 minutes. Carve. It is easiest to cut the breasts off in large chunks and then slice, but you can also use a sharp knife to cut off the crispy skin, which can be served separately. The skin will be crispy, beautifully richly browned, slightly sweet, and should have had all the fat cooked off.
One duck should suffice for 6 people as part of a meal.
In the marinade, use 4 slices of ginger root, 4 scallions, 1 tablespoon of Szichuan peppercorns, 2 tablespoons of salt. Mince together the ingredients to make a paste. Rub all over the cleaned duck. Place any extra inside the duck. Press hard and break the breastbone of the bird and flatten it. Leave it to marinade overnight in a refrigerator. Steam the duck for 2 hours. Allow to cool completely. Deep fry the bird for 8-10 minute in 190°C/375°F oil until golden brown and crisp. To eat, dip duck in roasted salt and peppercorns (roast 2 tablespoons of salt and 1 tsp peppercorns for 8 minutes in a heavy frying pan on the stovetop).
Canton Roast Duck
Similar in style to the classic Peking Duck. Marinade ingredients are 1 teaspoon of minced garlic, 1 tablespoon of minced scallion, 1 tablespoon of fresh chopped coriander, 1 tablespoon of chopped onion, 1 teaspoon of star anise, 1 teaspoon of Szichuan peppercorns, 2 tablespoons of dry sherry, 2 tablespoons of soy sauce, 1 teaspoon of brown sugar, 1 tablespoon of peanut oil, 4 tablespoons of honey, 2 tablespoons of salt, 1 teaspoon of cornstarch, 1 tablespoon of rice wine vinegar. Wash, clean and dry the duck, inside and out. Tie the duck at the neck to prevent liquid from running through and hang to dry for an hour. Rub salt in and over duck. Stir fry garlic, scallion, onion, coriander, star anise, and peppercorns in the oil. Add 2 cups of water and bring to the boil for 5 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons sherry, 2 tablespoons soy sauce and sugar and mix well. Pour this sauce into the duck, carefully sew the end and fasten it securely, so no fluid can escape. Dissolve 4 tablespoons of honey in 2 cups of boiling water, add rice wine vinegar, and baste the outside of the bird with it. Set the bird to dry overnight, basting from time to time with the honey vinegar mixture. Preheat oven to 200°C/400°F, place duck breast up on a rack and roast for 20 minutes. Baste with honey-vinegar mixture. Continue roasting at 175°C/350°F for 1 hour, basting every 20 minutes. Reduce heat to 150°C/300°F and roast another 30 minutes. Remove duck from oven and let rest for 10 minutes. Untie duck and drain sauce into a bowl to use as a gravy. Carve and serve.
Beijing duck doily pancakes
- 2 cups plain flour, plus extra for dusting
- 1¼ cups boiling water
- 2 tablespoons sesame seed oil
Place flour in a large bowl. Gradually add hot water, mixing continuously with a fork or wooden spoon until the mixture comes together as a dough. Add more water if the mixture is too dry and not coming together. As soon as it is cool enough to handle, turn dough onto a lightly floured bench top and knead for five minutes or until smooth.
Place dough on floured bench top, roll into a long sausage and cut into 30-40 equal pieces. Roll pieces into balls, flatten slightly and roll into 10cm circles. Remove excess flour, brush half the circles on one side generously with oil, and place the two oiled sides against one another. Roll the two circles together into 15cm pancakes, about 2mm thick. It is important not to roll pancakes any larger, as they will overcook and be too thin to separate.
Cover pancakes with a damp tea-towel to stop them from drying out.
Cook pancakes, one at a time, in a small non-stick frying pan over medium heat, about 30 seconds or until they brown lightly. Turn pancake, brown other side.
Remove from pan and gently pull the two circles apart. Wrap pancakes in foil to keep warm and prevent drying out. They can also be frozen this way. To heat them up again, place in a bamboo steamer over boiling water and steam a few seconds. Be careful, for if you steam them too long, the pancakes will stick together.
- 1 Beijing duck, meat removed from bone (skin on) and sliced into medallions
- ½ cup hoi sin sauce, ½ cup plum sauce, mixed together
- 1 cucumber, seeded and cut into 5cm batons
- 4 green onions, cut into 5cm strips (julienne)
Peking Duck Soup
This soup is the traditional finish to a Peking Duck. It ensures you have used everything.
- Duck carcass from Peking Duck
- 2 litres of water
- 1 large section of ginger, sliced
- 5 spring onions, chopped coarsely
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 1 whole Chinese cabbage
- 1 teaspoon of sugar
Break the wing, thigh, and breastbones, and crush ribs and spine. Add water, ginger, and spring onion, and bring to a boil. Boil for 2 hours or more. Strain out solids and clarify if you so choose. Add salt, cabbage, sugar, and gently boil for about 30 minutes, just until cabbage is tender. Adjust for seasoning and serve.