Chinese Cuisine, Food, Modern Chinese Culture, Tourism, Tradition

The Chinese “Christmas Turkey”

If you have been to Gladmat at Stavanger this Summer, you may remember the Chinese stall selling roasted ducks served in an exotic sauce. It is indeed the proverbial Peking Duck, prepared by one of the best known master chef at Bianyi Fang in Beijing. Not only is this dish well known for the tender, succulent pieces from a duck slow roasted whole – then rolled in a steamed, crepe-like wrap, together with thin slices of cucumbers, spring onion, cabbage, and a thick sweet-savoury soya sauce; it carries with it a history as rich as its taste.

It used to be a dish for royalties

The earliest written record in China of the dish of “roast ducks” 烧鸭子(shāo yà zi) can be traced back to Yuan Dynasty (from 1271 to 1368AD), according to the book “Complete Recipes of Dishes and Beverages” (饮膳正要yǐnshàn zhèngyào) that documented all food and drinks served in the imperial court. However, it is most widely agreed that it was the first Ming Dynasty Emperor Zhu Yuan Zhang (朱元璋1328-1398AD) who brought the dish to the capital Beijing all the way from Nanjing, which was warmer, more fertile and famous for duck dishes. After that, it was not until a couple centuries after, at the peak of the Qing Dynasty, that the recipe was leaked outside of the Forbidden City and became an instant favourite among the upper class.

A standard table setting for Peking Duck, with condiments, sliced green onion and cucumber, and the steamed wraps

“Kjært barn har mange navn”

“Kjært barn har mange navn”: this famous dish actually has several names. It is also called “Sliced Duck” (片皮鸭piàn pí yà) , named after the thin layers sliced off the duck while serving; or simply “Roast Duck” (烤鸭kǎo yà) ; or lastly, the “Hand-fed Duck” (填鸭tiányà). The last one is particular interesting. It came from the centuries old recipe that also describes how the ducks have to be fed a certain way to result in a right meat texture. In the original recipe, to raise these white-feathered ducks of Beijing origin, the ducklings have to be hand-fed with nutritional mix 30 days after hedging, because they would not have eaten enough. At day 45, these ducks are ready. The feeding method is so famous that the term hand-fed duck is used in modern day Chinese language in the phrase “fed-duck style education” (填鸭式教育tiányà shī jiàoyù) to describe the old-fashioned teaching method that emphasizes on rote learning and memorizing, like feeding texts by hand to the children.

A Tale of Two Rivals

Since the dish has come to the street of Beijing, two rival schools have developed, each with their own fans base. The first one, led by the restaurant Bianyi Fang (便宜坊biànyí fāng), uses closed stove. Once the stove was heated to the right temperature, the fire was put out. The ducks were then cooked in the closed oven using the remaining heat. The resulting duck has crispy skin and succulent, juicy meat. This method is a couple hundred years older than the other method, and tends to be favoured by elderly. The other one, led by the restaurant Quan Ju De (全聚德quánjù dé), uses an open stove. The ducks are hung above a live fire led by wood. The inside of the duck is filled with water so the meat is steamed from inside at the same time the outer skin is being roasted. Together with a few other intricate steps to treat the duck, this method results in thin, crispy skin served on a separate plate. In both methods, the ducks are well marinated in mixed spice paste and sauces before roasting to give a deep red-brown colour on the skin, which means the whole process could take as much as a few days to make. Nothing of the duck will be wasted – at the dinner, the remaining meat and bones are usually used to make a wholesome soup and another dish for all the guests to share. Next time you visit Beijing, be sure to have a taste of this imperial delicacy that carries centuries of culinary expertise and pride!

Additional Notes: With Chinese cuisine finding its way into the Norwegian kitchen, you may be surprised to see packs of frozen Peking Duck wraps in the freezer right next to frozen spring rolls in supermarket in your next grocery trip. It is indeed possible to make the Peking Duck in a modern home kitchen, and here is a step by step video for you. Warning though, it takes a lot of work!

For a more detailed description of the Bianyifang style of Peking Duck, you can also see this video: