Sampling Beijing’s imperial duck
The recipe for Peking duck is approximately 800 years old. (Ray Laskowitz/LPI)
Most people would agree that Peking (or Beijing) duck is the capital’s most famous dish. Once imperial cuisine, now the legendary duck dish is served at restaurants around the world.
The culinary history of Peking duck goes as far back as the Yuan dynasty, where it was listed in royal cookbooks as an imperial food. The Qing poet Yuan Mei once wrote in a cookbook, “Roast duck is prepared by revolving a young duckling on a spit in an oven. The chief inspector Fang’s family excel in preparing this dish”. When the Qing dynasty fell in 1911, former palace chefs set up restaurants around Beijing and brought the dish to the public.
To prepare the duck, chefs go through a lengthy process. First the ducks are inflated by blowing air between the skin and body. The skin is then pricked and boiling water poured all over the duck. Sometimes the skin is rubbed with malt sugar to give it an amber colour and is then hung up to air dry before roasting in the oven. When roasted, the skin becomes crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside. The bird is meticulously cut into 120 slices and served with fermented bean paste, light pancakes, sliced cucumbers and green onions.
Perhaps the best Peking duck restaurant in Beijing is Liqun Roast Duck Restarant. The duck here is so popular that you need to call in advance to order one (or arrive after 2:30pm and be prepared to wait). The restaurant itself is a little ramshackle, but the sublime duck makes it a culinary experience to savour. With development crashing through the hutong, this is a restaurant to visit sooner rather than later.
The most famous restaurants that serve Peking duck though, are part of the Quanjude Restaurant chain, which first opened in 1864. There are six branches around Beijing, but the flagship of the empire is at Qianmen Dajie. This place is geared to the tourist hordes (both domestic and foreign) – check out the photos of Fidel Castro and Zhang Yimou. Ducks here are roasted with fruit-tree wood, giving the dish a special fragrance. If the crowds are too much, there is another location just off Wangfujing Dajie.
Another well-known roast duck restaurant is Bianyifang, founded in 1855. Instead of fruit-tree wood, the ducks here are cooked in an oven with straw as fuel. On a budget? Make sure you get the cheaper menlu-style half duck with pancakes, scallions and sauce which some say is more tender. The more expensive Huaxiangsu style is available for those willing to spend the yuan. If Peking duck is not your style, the restaurant has many other duck variants on their English menu.