It is axiomatic among some habitués of Chinese restaurants that the more cliché the ambience—the statuette of a pudgy Buddha, the bottles of plum wine on a shelf, the tattered New Year’s dragon hanging in the window—the more authentic the cuisine. Why this is, nobody really knows. Perhaps the seemingly haphazard decor is intended, like joss sticks tossed on the floor, to conjure up good fortune or, at the very least, to ward off evil. But would the same metaphysics apply in China? I would soon find out.
Hours after landing in Beijing, I found myself moving through the culinary chaos known to Beijingers as “Snack Street.” Officially JinBao Street, it was once the neighborhood where the rich sent their servants to shop for their households’ food, but with the advent of the Chinese economic miracle and a higher standard of living, Snack Street has become a popular place to see and be seen. On either side of the street, food vendors tempted locals and sightseers with such delicacies as steamed buns filled with pork or bean paste called baozi, grilled prawns, fresh octopus, eels, chicken feet, grasshoppers, deep-fried starfish, river crabs, fried scorpion on a stick, snake, noodles in mutton fat, and sheep’s penis.
It was all very intriguing, but none of these treats could dissuade me from my quest. That night only one dish would do, the most legendary of all Chinese gustatory pleasures: Peking duck. In Beijing, there are hundreds of restaurants that specialize in duck—from Bianyifang, the city’s nearly 600-year-old, original duck restaurant, to glamorous new establishments such as Duck de Chine 2, which boasts a chic dining room and a Bollinger Champagne bar. No matter what the era or the style, the duck purveyed in the best of these restaurants transcends everyday notions of cuisine: Both a ritual and an art form, the dish is an echo of China’s imperial past and a gauge of the sweeping change that is transforming the Dragon Empire. It is a delicacy of the most flavorful, ethereal quality, from wafer-crisp skin to succulent flesh, and one of the most difficult dishes to prepare well.
“It’s a celebratory experience,” said Fuchsia Dunlop, the author of Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, a Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China. “When done properly it can be one of the most nearly perfect dishes you can imagine. There’s something decadent about the crisp, lacquered skin literally melting in your mouth and the tender duck meat mingling with the delicate flavors of pancake, crushed garlic, and scallions that’s unlike anything else in the world of gastronomy. But it’s hard to find a rendition that meets expectations.”
Brian Reimer, former executive sous-chef at Daniel, Daniel Boulud’s three-Michelin-star boîte in Manhattan, and now the executive chef at Maison Boulud in Beijing, would agree. “It’s a wonderful dish,” he says. “No big event takes place in China without it. It defines the city and its culture. And the only place to have Peking duck is Beijing.”
I had come to Beijing, flying 7,000 miles and crossing 12 time zones, to do just that: To experience the duck in full glory. But this was no odyssey for the faint of heart. Peking duck is also said to be one of the richest of all dishes. And I had only three days.
I already knew firsthand how easy it is, even here, for the best intentions to go astray. A previous visit to Beijing had brought me to Green T House, an avant-garde restaurant, spa, art museum, and teahouse. True to its leitmotif, the Peking duck had been infused with green tea. “How was it?” the waitress asked.
“Like nothing I’ve ever had before,” I replied. And I hoped to never experience its like again.
Back home in Philadelphia, my duck hunt had taken me to a handsome Chinese restaurant on the tony Main Line, with posh booths and an air of understatement. But the duck was execrable, the meat sliced in chunks and wrapped in a dense, doughy burrito that made it impossible to locate the fine shards of caramelized skin that are the sine qua non for the duck aficionado.
The emperors would not have tolerated this for an instant. The recipe for Chinese roast duck first appeared in a cookbook from the Yuan dynasty, circa 1330 AD. The next century—more precisely, in 1416 AD—Bianyifang opened its doors. Remarkably, the restaurant is still open.
By the mid-19th century, the dish had evolved into the classic Peking duck preparation, and was considered such a delicacy that it was reserved for the imperial family. The masses got their hands on it in 1864, when a restaurateur named Yang bribed a retired chef for the recipe and opened a restaurant called Quanjude. The restaurant—which burned nonsmoking fruitwood over its open fire, thereby imparting a hint of fruity flavor—caught on, and some 60 Quanjude restaurants and outlets now operate across China.
Peking duck first blipped onto the radar of stateside gastronomes in the 1950s as the dish that had to be ordered 24 hours in advance, to allow time for ambient air-drying before roasting. Today traditionalists insist that Peking duck has to dry overnight, and hotels ask that orders be placed when making dinner reservations; the busy Beijing duck restaurants keep a steady inventory and can produce a tasty duck in a mere half hour or less.
Of course, no matter how skilled the chef, it all starts with the bird, and the best birds come from farms in the suburbs of Beijing, in the area near the Summer Palace that is said to be blessed with rich earth and excellent water. The poultry from these farms yield meat that is tender and flavorful, with a pleasing layer of fat. It usually takes 38 to 40 days to raise a duck for the market, and during the last few weeks of their lives the ducks are caged and fattened with a special diet of millet, mung beans, sorghum, and wheat chaff.
After the duck has reached a weight of close to 5 pounds, it is slaughtered for market and prepared for roasting. First the duck is scalded and plucked free of feathers. Air is pumped into the body to soufflé the skin like a bellows from the meat, after which the duck is doused with boiling water to tighten the skin and seal the pores. The duck is cooled for six hours or longer in a refrigerator before being hung on a metal hook and roasted over an open fire of fruitwood; while it is roasting, the duck is lacquered with a syrup of maltose, honey, and water to complement the bird’s flavor, aroma, and color. It is then left to dry in a cool, well-ventilated place before being hung over an open fire and roasted again, until the skin drips with fat and takes on a mahogany hue.
The dish comes with just one caveat, as the managers and chefs in Beijing’s duck restaurants are fond of saying: “Do not try this at home.”
Until recently, you would not have wanted to try it at a restaurant, either. In the 1990s, China’s economic reforms gave newly privatized businesses, such as restaurants, the freedom to innovate and compete without bureaucratic constraints—but also without oversight, supervision, or expertise. The transition did not always go smoothly. Restaurant patrons would go out for a relaxing evening, only to find that they had to queue up for chairs. With tipping long forbidden, the most elemental forms of service disappeared. As for Peking duck, it became an unappetizing reminder of a bygone gourmandise and the niceties of service. As recalled in Da Dong, a memoir from the duck house of the same name, “What pity, 700 years of roast duck tradition stagnated on fatty and greasy gastronomy to the woes of chefs and diners.”
Fortunately, a handful of Beijing restaurateurs organized to restore the restaurant industry’s prestige and standards. Among them was a man known as Da Dong, the hero of the memoir and the proprietor of the restaurant of the same name. His goal was to create a duck that was crispy without being greasy. After five years of experimenting, and with the malaise of the 1990s now behind him, he could claim to have produced a duck that was the equal of the great roasters of history. It was, according to the memoir, “crispy but not greasy in the interest of health and without sacrificing traditional flavor and taste.”
From the moment guide Scott Gumbiner and I walked into Da Dong, a block away from Snack Street, it was clear the restaurant was seriously dedicated to duck. The first thing that caught my eye was a large open oven, displaying a half-dozen ducks dripping fat onto a hissing wood fire. Another sign that I was surrounded by duck professionals: The waiters and chefs all wore towering white toques and white sanitary masks to make sure their breath did not touch my duck.
Otherwise the ambience was of the strip-mall variety—perhaps a good sign?—with an amateurish landscape painted across one wall and a small dried tree with lights the color of Aqua Velva flashing along its branches. “They don’t believe in spending a lot of money on the wallpaper,” said Gumbiner. “To the Chinese, the important thing is the food.”
A maître d’ hustled up and, recognizing my guide and me as Americans, immediately suggested, “Château Latour?” Explaining, so as not to lose face, that I had not come to China for a beverage I had every day at home, Gumbiner and I were soon served glasses of baijiu, the traditional, high-octane “welcome to China” potion distilled from sorghum. Soon a waiter wheeled a service cart up to our table; somewhere in the palace of my imagination trumpets sounded and a beribboned seneschal pronounced, “Behold the duck.”
Tendrils of aroma and smoke wafted toward us as the waiter began slicing. Unless we preferred otherwise, he explained, not unlike a piano player asking for requests, he would be cutting our duck into 108 pieces tonight. That was fine with us. Gumbiner explained that each restaurant has its favorite number. “For some it’s 46, for others it’s 80, for others it’s 88 or 100,” he said. “But usually it’s a number that ends in ‘8’ for good luck.”
The number of slices is just the beginning. Some diners like their duck heavy with fat while others prefer theirs lean; others like their pancakes thin while thick pancakes have their own following. The wood that roasts the duck is a consideration as well; there is jujube, peachwood, or date wood, to name but a few, and as for the dipping sauces—there are dozens. The garnishes—typically garlic, spring onion, red pickle, and cucumber—not only lend tasteful notes to a meal, but also are said to balance pH and add vitamin C while reducing cholesterol and promoting digestion. But for all the variables and nuances, when it comes to eating duck it is really all about the skin, those evanescent shards of pure flavor that on the tongue change from solid to something more ephemeral.
Just as at other traditional restaurants, dinner at Da Dong proceeded in three courses: the skin, the meat, and the soup. First we were told to take a thinly sliced strip of skin and drag it lightly—almost as if by accident—through a mound of sugar. Though I had been conditioned over decades to resist sugar in any form, here it was a revelation, almost electro-voltaic as my synapses struggled to interpret this new pleasure. Next I seized a piece of the flesh in my chopsticks and folded it into one of the delicate rice pancakes with a sprig of spring onion and sweet bean sauce. I was torn between the desire to consume ravenously and to experience every element on a higher level. Alas, the former impulse conquered the latter. A mere 30 minutes later, the magnificent duck was gone, and the last bits of fat, meat, and bones were transformed into a duck soup all the more delicate for its blandness. I rose slowly, wordlessly, from the table, aware that what I had just experienced was a feast for the centuries. One I would repeat the next day at lunch.
The venue was none other than Bianyifang. Beijing’s duck professionals consider it a classic among classics, the precursor to the more modern style of Peking-duck roasting. So it was a surprise to discover the way to the restaurant led through a shopping mall to an entrance that might have been taken for a Buddhist temple except for the large plastic duck character standing by the door. My guide and I plunged ahead anyway—any restaurant that had been doing business for nearly 600 years had to be doing something right. Once inside, our waiter was eager to show us what made Bianyifang special: a closed radiant oven, which is heated by fire, and a method that involves filling the duck with soup so that the bird roasts on the outside and boils on the inside.
Though the dining experience lacked the revelatory element of the night before—you never forget your first real duck—the closed oven did produce a more uniformly flavored duck, and a soup with a decidedly gamier flavor. Beyond the duck, Bianyifang is popular among retro buffs who enjoy seeking out the clues to the restaurant’s former role as a bastion of the People’s Republic.
A more fashion-forward vibe prevails at Duck de Chine 2. Restaurateur Paul Hsu’s high-style boîte is set in the middle of a villa, with views of lush gardens through full-height glass windows; underfoot are handpainted tiles with duck themes. Three open ovens cast a warm glow over the interior courtyard, creating a feeling that is contemporary yet warm and welcoming. Even so, when Beijing’s smart set heard what Hsu had in mind, they shook their heads. “It was all too unconventional for some people,” said Hsu. “I intended to serve Peking duck with Cantonese sauces.”
They were even more dubious when the restaurateur revealed his plans to install a Bollinger Champagne lounge by the entrance. “Nobody had ever done anything like that in a duck restaurant,” said Hsu, as a waitress bent over our table to blend garlic, peanut, and sesame in a dish for dipping duck skin. A few tables away another waitress softly tapped a gong to announce that the table’s duck was ready; the effect was oddly comic, both sophisticated and surreal. Yet for all the frills, Hsu has not lost sight of Duck de Chine’s raison d’être. “We raise our own hybrid line of White Peking and Cherry Valley duck,” he said. “Besides its taste, it is known for being low in fat. The ducks are also roasted over 40-year-old jujube wood for longer than the standard 65 minutes, which gives the duck an extra-crispy taste.”
The bird was carved carefully—80 to 85 slices per duck, a thickness Hsu alleges will somehow produce lower fat and more flavor per slice—and then reassembled for serving, the crisp skin layered over juicy meat. A separate plate delivered the head and neck pieces favored by gourmands.
That bottle of Château Latour notwithstanding, the pairing of food and wine—so intrinsic to the fine dining experience in the United States and Europe—is still little known in China. So the next day it was exciting to think, as the sommelier at Made in China approached our table, that every bite of duck and every sip of wine might be taking us deeper into uncharted territory, even establishing new customs. As duck diva Fuchsia Dunlop had observed from London a few days before my departure for Beijing: “I took part in a tasting of 19 wines [with Peking duck] recently. The very tannic reds—especially the Bordeaux—don’t pair well at all. Champagne went best but Pinot Noir or white wines like Riesling can be good.”
Made in China—the colorful, modernistic dining room at the Grand Hyatt—creates cocktails tailored to the savory bird. One drink that the restaurant recommends to duck fanciers is called Hua Diao, a blend made with tea and a splash of Coke and topped with a Chinese dried plum. “How do you like it?” asked Sophia Sun, the hotel’s assistant public relations manager.
“Maybe without the prune,” I replied.
We tried a second specialty drink, the Peking Duck Margarita, a cocktail of lime juice and Guo Tou. “That’s Chinese white lightning,” said Sun, with a laugh. “How is it?”
“Maybe it would benefit from the prune,” I quipped, though actually it was a refreshing complement to the duck.
While the look at Made in China is bright and modern, with a kitchen open to the dining room, its top duck chef, Kent Jin, takes a thoroughly traditional approach to his craft. “I do Peking duck and only Peking duck,” said the chef, who has been standing over roasting birds for 20 years and who favors slicing them into 108 pieces. “And a chef who is not a Peking duck chef cannot do duck.”
In fact, Jin said, the restaurant has its own trucks for hauling the birds into town, because “we want our ducks to be calm and peaceful.” Also, unlike at other restaurants, the staff members clean the ducks themselves. The quality of the duck has become increasingly important, given the demand for the dish. “We are doing more Peking duck than ever,” the chef said. “Maybe 60 ducks a day.”
If it is becoming the conventional wisdom that Bordeaux does not pair with Peking duck, I was already flouting the rule with gusto at the Red Chamber, the restaurant at the Shangri-La China World Summit Wing, one of Beijing’s newest luxury hotels. The Vieux Chateaux des Jouans we were sipping was a delightful match for a duck that was as tasty as it was unconventional. “Bordeaux pairs well with the skin,” insisted Ricar Li, my hostess and the hotel’s director of sales, “and the meat is best when it’s cut into 46 slices.”
I did not have to dip the skin into sugar, as the sweetness is already blended into the basting sauce. More surprises would come. There was a salad of baby cabbage and giant prawns; foie gras with mushrooms and beef; and, instead of duck soup at the end of the meal, we had a lobster soup with prawns, mushrooms, and tofu, the textures and tastes of which flashed across my palate like a kaleidoscope. It was, in short, a fantastic repast. But was it Peking duck? Or was it, as with music or art, a progression beyond the original?
Li assured me it could be whichever I wanted it to be. “It’s a different style, but it upholds the old traditions and standards.”
To be sure, the dinner at the Red Chamber had been exciting and innovative; truth to tell, it was a welcome departure from the four classic ducks that had waddled before it.
So what did I learn in the end? Though it was jarring to find ordinary white sugar posing as a condiment, the sweetener can have a spectacular effect. Under controlled conditions, the varying numbers of slices—46, 88, 108, or 110—would indeed produce distinctive, even dramatic, variances in taste. But most of all, the secret to enjoying a great Peking duck is to approach the dish in a civilized manner: Do not devour it as if ravenous, but nibble appreciatively at its many elements.
And as for the kitsch factor, the decor does not matter unless we want it to.
Bianyifang, +86.10.6711.2244; Da Dong, +86.10.5169.0328; Duck de Chine 2, +86.10.6521.2221, www.elite-concepts.com/Promotions/1949/JinBaoJie.htm; Made in China, +86.10.8518.1234, www.beijing.grand.hyatt.com; The Red Chamber, +86.10.8571.6459, www.shangri-la.com/beijing