Foodie Beijing: A Brief History of Peking Duck
Among the most iconic dishes in Chinese cooking—which, of course, is incredibly multifaceted and diverse—is Peking duck, a preparation that originated in imperial kitchens and even today comes served with a bit of a royal flourish.
Sampling this refined combination of roasted, crispy-skinned duck, scallions, cucumbers, hoisin sauce, and pancake firsthand is certainly a defining culinary experience on any visit to Beijing.
Peking Duck: A Quick Backstory
The roots of Peking duck extend back better than a millennium: Roasted duck, for example, was already a fixture of the cuisine during the Northern and Southern dynasties between the third and fifth centuries.
The specific dish of Peking duck—which is detailed (under the name shaoyazi) in a cookbook of imperial-court recipes written in 1330—may have been developed in Nanjing, one of the ancient capitals of China, and only assumed its modern name when the emperor’s main H.Q. moved to Beijing—formerly known in the West as Peking—during the Ming dynasty.
Preparing Peking Duck
The dish is rendered from the meat of the white-feathered Peking duck. (Note the alternate spelling: Peking is the name of the duck breed, Peking the Beijing-inspired name of the dish.) The ducks are raised in a free-range environment for some 45 days, then force-fed for several weeks before being slaughtered.
Once the duck has been plucked, dressed, and cleaned, it’s boiled, and then air is pumped under the skin to draw it away from the fat and meat. The cook then lathers the duck in maltose syrup—used to produce as crispy a skin as possible in the end product, which is really the whole point—and hangs it to dry.
The original method of roasting Peking duck is known as the closed-oven approach, in which the bird cooks from the convective heat of a preheated closed oven. In the mid-19th century, an alternative method—the “open-oven” or “hung-oven” method—was pioneered in which the duck is roasted over a fire, typically fed with peach, pear, or date wood.
The two most famous Beijing restaurants for Peking duck each follow a different technique: Bianyifang, which opened back in the 1410s (yes, you read that right—the 15th century), cooks its Peking duck by the closed-oven method, while Quanjude, founded in the 1860s, follows the hung-oven approach.
Eating Peking Duck in Beijing
You can’t do better than ordering Peking duck at one—or, ideally, both—of the legendary aforementioned restaurants, Bianyifang or Quanjude, which now maintains several locations in the city. Another popular and well-regarded establishment for this signature preparation is Da Dong.
Meanwhile, you certainly won’t have to look very hard to find countless other eateries offering Peking duck, though many don’t have quite the same standards as these esteemed three.
Depending on the appetites involved, anywhere from four to 10 people may happily share one Peking duck. (Singletons and smaller parties may be able to order a half-duck.) Keep in mind various starter courses and sides are often served with Peking duck, so do your best to manage your food intake so you’re leaving room for the main dish.
Half the fun of ordering Peking duck is watching the meat carved, which the chef traditionally does table-side. There’s a bit of an art to consuming the thing, though it’s easy to master. Using chopsticks or your fingers, lay a pancake in your hand.
You can either spread some hoisin sauce directly on it or dip a few spring-onion and cucumber slices in the sauce and then lay them in the pancake. Put a piece or two of the duck in the center, then fold the pancake from the bottom and then the sides so you’ve got an easily handled parcel you can munch on from the open top.
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