Does it take a Hong Kong restaurant to offer fine dining and authentic Peking Duck in Beijing? In search the best Peking duck, something served globally yet Peking’s origins are right here in Beijing. But the famed is more commonly known outside China as Peking duck and here in Beijing, it is Beijing Duck.
Since I tried the real deal in Beijing, I understand the difference between what I ate in the west and what I tried in Beijing. Lets just say Chinese food in Japan is cleaned up, no real intense spice, and there are some exceptions to the rule, but in general spice in Japan is mild. In Toronto and possibly New York, or San Francisco you can find Chinese immigrants who stick to their roots and make it as close as it gets.
In fact my uncle was Chinese and he used to take us to Markham in Ontario and we would feast on dim sum chickens feet, and lots of other goodies. So I can say, I have tried Chinese food in and around a Chinese scene but when it comes to duck that’s another story. I did some research on wood burning ovens in Tokyo and you are hard pressed to find anyone using wood burning ovens because its forbidden – so no any fire roasting ducks in Tokyo or Yokohama.
We tried Peking duck three times in three days, and hands down the best duck was at Beijing’s 1949 because the overall taste of skin, meat and pancake was near perfect. For experts and novices who have never been to Beijing you should be aware that duck in China isn’t quite the same as duck in the west, or in Japan.
Let’s start with the roasting one of the keys to the crispy skin, and you have two choices when it comes to finishing ducks; one is finishing them in the wok, that is common or as you see here below in a wooden oven.
The fire is offset and the ducks are smoked and cooked at the same time until the skin is golden and the skin shimmering. The duck roasts so perfectly, the skin is composed of three tissues or layers of cells. The epidermis is the outermost tissue itself consisting of three separate layers of cells. The dermis is the middle tissue and the hypodermis is the innermost layer or tissue contain different amounts and distribution of special compounds mainly collagen,elastin and keratin. This is the secret, the dermis is relatively thin and shows a uniform, microscopic structure that helps in the roasting process. This is different to many other animals that have both densely packed and loose layers of cells. Another factor is duck skin is usually covered by the feathers and is normally protected and hence is thinner.The duck’s fat is stored here in special adipose cells so it hits the “yummy” factor when you bite into the pancake.
Then there are the carotenoids an important skin pigment, yellow to orange lipid pigments contain free fats responsible for the yellow colour of these tissues. These fats are distributed evenly across the skin and are perfect for roasting color.
The roasting of the duck without turning the duck is a Chinese technique, whereas in the west it is common to use a rotisserie. In this case the fire’s radiant heat, the same fire you find in a pizza oven is what cooks the duck.
The glowing light rays sear the ducks skin and it gets crispy as the fat under the skin acts as a layer to protect the meat and the air balloon has already served its purpose by separating the duck slkin from the flesh. The breast side is exposed to the fired logs and in thids case an air current blows upwards and over the logs keeping them glowing. The intense heat renders the maillard reaction giving the duck the golden surface color and the glaze coats the surface.
In China the duck meat is served separately but the skin is still the ultimate delicacy. The richness of the In Japan, you’ll find the skin as the principal course and believe it or not the duck meat is discarded – it disappears. In Beijing after the duck was cut at our table the meat and carcass are taken away. At one restaurant, they offered us stir fry, or a soup, and in the other restaurant I requested the carcass and they obliged without any resistance. It appeared later at the table on a white plate, bones and carcass a looking liked it had been scavenged by a cat – we could still get some tasty meat close to the duck legs.
Looking back in time, my wife reminds me of Chen one of the best Chinese restaurants in Europe and probably one of the very few with a Michelin star. Chen before he passed away was one of our favorite culinary experiences. Mr. & Mrs. Chen, ah, they were so elegant, hospitable and their cuisine was top gourmet – we sincerely miss them: http://www.restaurantchenparis.fr
After chef Chen passed away we would visit the restaurant yet it was so sad. His wife was sad and the food wasn’t quite the same. nevertheless, we left Paris and we haven’t been back in many years to Chen. This is something we will pout on our list to do.
Enjoying Peking duck depends on several factors; firstly, most foodies identify their duck experience with 4 factors: skin, meat, sauce and pancake. The tradition in China is using sugar with the skin, and in all restaurants, you find white crystal sugar for adding to the skin and pancake. Then you have a choice of scallion, radish, cucumber, or minced garlic.
Each restaurant has a slight variation to the duck preparation. For example, for beginners most prefer the duck prepared by the staff, and in China experts and locals do it themselves. At duck de Chine they provide a sweet bean paste, and the staff offer to add peanut, sesame or garlic to the sauce. I opted against the idea as the condiments are not up to snuff. The staff did put on a small show by adding the sesame to the bean paste and swirling it for effect. It looks great but the seasame was rancid.
The sweet bean paste some refer to as hoisin sauce is not hoisin, and while I hadn’t heard anyone use this term, I do know the sauce is made from fermented wheat flour and soy bean. The sauce isn’t just a simple ingredient because it can make or break the experience. Each restaurant makes their own sweet sauce and be sure not to smother it, or it dominates the taste.
In the west staff prepare the pancake by adding sauce by using a spoon utensil, and in Duck de Chine we did it ourselves. The staff prompted us to dip the skin in the bean paste and then add it to the pancake.
The pancake is critical to any Peking duck experience and each restaurant has their own individual style. We can only describe the two types we tried, one was very oily and the other steamed and much drier.
We found the pancake steamed much more appetizing and the oily type pancake was not to our taste. In some cases, we found the meat tasted like a ducky animal that was more wild, but it all depends case by case. We were told the duck gets more and more animal, but it isn’t true
The problem is some restaurants do not have the duck oven roasting by wood, as it is a fire hazard. So, if a restaurant doesn’t roast the ducks by open fire then they simply wok fry it to achieve the skins crispness. This can have a different taste when compared to oven roasting. Without a question oven roasting is much more impressive, and here the wok fried duck you see below the glaze is too dark and uneven, and it was sugared to get a crispy texture and the scalded to get the crispness.
The sweet plum paste in China is definitely on the sweet side of things. I suspect in the past the sauce was added to cover the animal taste given duck’s diets were not 100% controlled. In Hong Kong, the duck they use is not always duck and you’ll find goose more often. That’s not to say you cannot find Peking duck, but just be sure to ask.
Beijing duck is a show, a luxury food, a nobe history and each time they bring out a duck, I ask myself the same question, why not chicken. It is obvious why, chckens are domesticated animals that are widespread and commonplace. Chickens do not have the derma of a duck and there is no comparison. However at Peninsula they do make crispy chicken and it was excellent – crispy, tender and perfectly cooked. It makes good sense to wok fry and scald thew chicken’s skin by using oil in the wok, but duck is another matter.
The ducks used in Beijing duck are local animals and so pedigree is essential. Yet the preparation of the duck is complex and time consuming to get it right. As most foodies know the skin is seperated from the body by using air, and the chickens are puffed up, and dried before being roasted. Before they render the fat as I do when I cook chicken by using scalding water, and then they use a sugared glaze before hanging the chicken to dry it. Then they plug the duck and add air liquid into the cavity.
It is important to understand that hygiene in not the best in China. Even in the best restaurants hygiene is problematic because the buildings are old and the organization and preparation areas are not 100%. In our hotel, it is another story and I did visit the kitchen at Peninsula, and it was oversized and immaculate.
Restaurant Duck de Chine
T. +86 6521 2221 and it is located on No.98 Jinbao Street Dongcheng district Beijing 100005 P.R.C
Near to the Peninsula Hotel it was excellent, and when compared to what we experienced in Tokyo, New York, or Toronto, it was very different and top notch.
The duck last night reminded me of the smoky smell in Singapore’s hotel lobby Fullerton Bay. When you walk into the hotel it smells like they are smoking duck and they are. The exact same smell last night, a peat smoke renders the air and the duck surprisingly wasn’t smoky. This duck below was outstanding served at the duck de chine.
In most places they rely on the fat to be the center of focus but here it is a combination of skin that is both crsipy and fat, and not just fat.
I am also told that Siji Minfu Restaurant Peking Roast Duck (Dengshikou) is a top restaurant for duck and mapodofu and next trip we will try it.
1/F, Donghua Restaurant, No.32 Dengshikou West Street,
Dongcheng District, Beijing, China
T. +86 10 6513 5141
I read on the internet about The Proper and Essential Things for the Emperor’s Food and Drink written in 1330 by Hu Sihui. He was one of the dietary physicians for the royal court, and more research shows an ancient recipe for roasting the duck was inside of a sheep’s stomach.
Hu Sihui’s recipe appears to be the best documented version, but Chinese are documented eating roast duck several centuries before his findings. /source internet/
A dish called Shaoyazi literally “burning duck” goes back to the 400’s during the Southern and Northern Dynasties (429-589). These original recipes used a small, black-feathered duck from the Nanjing region, but today, the bird of choice is either the Beijing or Pekin breeds. In the traditional method of raising the birds, they can range freely for the first seven weeks and are then confined and force-fed until they are slaughtered at about 65 days.
By the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Peking duck was a well-established dish and wasn’t just reserved for royalty. In 1416, a restaurant in Beijing, Bian Yi Fang, began serving Peking duck and continues to do so today. But I was told by a friend that it isn’t worthwhile. We expect that they would be the place to go to get this dish since they’ve had a few hundred years to get it right.
The traditional method for preparing the dish, called Menlu, involved using a closed oven, but in the 1860s a new method, Gualu, in which the birds are hung inside an open oven, became popular. The debate on which method is the best continues today.
In conclusion every bite of the duck filled pancake is a journey through an important culinary history in China.