By Greg Hugh -
As North Americans prepare to celebrate our traditional Thanksgiving feast with family and friends with a large roasted turkey as the centerpiece of the meal, it should be noted that this is not a holiday typically observed within China. The obvious reason is the origins of Thanksgiving when, in the autumn of 1621, English colonists in America whom we call Pilgrims, celebrated days of thanksgiving for their first successful harvest. Also, another reason could be attributed to the fact that the typical kitchen in China does not have an oven, let alone one large enough to roast an average 18-lb. turkey!
In lieu of what Benjamin Franklin had lobbied to be the national bird of the U.S.A., China has its own famous fowl, the Peking duck. It is one of the most famous dishes of Beijing cuisine. It was originally prepared for the imperial families of China, with a history of more than 400 years. In its classic form, the dish calls for a specific breed of duck, the Imperial Peking, that is force-fed and housed in a small cage so that inactivity will ensure tender meat. The neck and head are left intact as the bird is killed (at about six weeks old) and dressed, and after the entrails are removed, the lower opening is sewn shut. Air is forced between the skin and flesh to puff out the skin so that the fat will be rendered out during roasting and the skin, the choicest part of the dish, will be very crisp. The inflated bird is coated with a sweet solution, hung up to dry, then suspended and roasted in a traditional cylindrical clay oven.
The traditional Peking duck dish consists of three courses. The first: crispy skin is served with hoisin sauce (a commercially prepared, reddish brown, sweet and spicy sauce), scallions artistically cut to resemble brushes, all wrapped in thin wheat-flour pancakes or steamed wheat-flour “lotus buns.” The second course consists of the meat of the duck, which is sliced and stir-fried with vegetables. The third dish is a soup made from the duck’s carcass and celery cabbage. Because of the complicated preparation, Peking duck is primarily restaurant fare and usually has to be ordered at least a day in advance.
Although duck has been roasted in China through the centuries, it wasn’t until 1330 when it first appeared in a manual for the imperial kitchens. It was popularized in 1864 when it became commercially available in a Peking restaurant.
According to Wikipedia, by the mid-20th century, Peking duck had become a national symbol of China, favored by tourists and diplomats alike. For example, during his first visit to China, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger met Premier Zhou Enlai in the Great Hall of the People on July 10. After a round of inconclusive talks in the morning, the delegation was served Peking duck for lunch, which became Kissinger's favourite. The Americans and Chinese issued a joint statement the following day, inviting President Richard Nixon to visit China in 1972. Peking duck was hence considered one of the factors behind the rapprochement of the United States to China in the 1970s. Following Zhou's death in 1976, Kissinger paid another visit to Beijing to savor Peking duck at the Quanjude, a Beijing restaurant known for its trademark Quanjude Peking Roast Duck. The Peking duck is also a favorite dish for various political leaders ranging from Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro to former German chancellor Helmut Kohl.
Although Peking duck has evolved to become a dish that the masses can enjoy throughout China, it actually remains a favorite dish for special occasions, and is commonly ordered at banquets and other celebrations and feasts. One of the reasons that the dish is so popular at such events has to do with the presentation of the duck. Not only is Peking duck delicious, but there is a certain art to the way that the dish is presented and served to the diners in China.
Once the duck has been thoroughly cooked, it is brought from the kitchen and presented to the diners tableside. Then, guests are invited to look on as the chef deftly slices off the crispy skin for the first course right there in the dining room. At the more elite (read expensive) restaurants, a server actually prepares the duck skin pancake for each individual guest. At the more plebeian establishments, it’s “fend for yourself!” And as the guests eat the first dish, the chef remains at the side of the table carving the meat off the duck. In addition to watching a chef expertly carve beautiful portions of skin and meat from the bird, diners also get to enjoy the lovely aroma during this process. When all the meat is off the bird, the chef carts the meat and carcass back to the kitchen for the subsequent two courses.
Once a Peking duck has been carved, the skin, as mentioned previously, is dressed with a sweet garlicky sauce. The skin is generally eaten wrapped in thin, steamed pancakes with scallions and hoisin sauce. Some connoisseurs prefer sweet noodle sauce, a thicker and more pungent alternative to hoisin sauce. Furthermore, Peking duck is often served with numerous (side) vegetable dishes. It is common for diners to add some vegetables, particularly julienned carrots and cucumbers, to the duck meat and scallions before adding sauce to the pancakes.
Although the skin and meat courses of Peking duck are the most delectable parts, many diners choose to take the bones and scraps home with them rather than have the restaurant prepare the soup. These leftovers will be used to make an aromatic broth for soup and noodle dishes at home.
Now that you’ve learned about Peking duck, be sure to try it the next time you want to dine on something special. But be sure you check with your favorite Chinese restaurant to see if they will prepare this dish for you, and how much advance notice they need unless you’re in Beijing, where it is always on the menu at Quanjude.