How to eat Peking duck pancakes?
How To: It's a feast fit for emperors. But as Diana Kuan explains, there's more to devouring the iconic dish than you might think.
The situation: After a long day of roaming the Forbidden City, you want nothing more than a sit-down meal. No visit to Beijing is complete without a Peking duck dinner, a decadent meal ideal for ending the day. But for the beginner, this feast of poultry, pancakes and condiments can be tricky to navigate. You need a Peking duck primer.
The basics: Legend has it that Peking kao ya was a favorite of the imperial court. As early as the 14th and 15th centuries, chefs from all over China went to Peking (now Beijing) to cook for the emperors. In the late 1800s, the public got its first whiff of the dish when chefs began opening restaurants outside palace walls.
While most original Peking-style foods have been relegated to the annals of history, Peking duck remains the focus of Beijing’s banquet halls. Top Peking duck restaurants use specially bred birds and employ chefs who specialize in duck preparation. The process is lengthy and complicated: Chefs blow air under the skin to separate it from the fat, then brush the duck with a sugary syrup and spices. They then soak it in boiling water and hang it to dry for up to a day to ensure a crispy skin. Finally, they roast the duck.
Where to go: Open up any of the free English publications—That’s Beijing or TimeOut Beijing—and you’ll find a slew of ads for restaurants specializing in Peking duck. Locals differ on their picks for the best duck in town. Many rave about Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant (32 Qianmen Dajie, Chongwen), a seven-story palace, which has been roasting for the public since 1864 and now has several other locations around Beijing. Da Dong (Building 3, Tuanjiehu Beikou, Chaoyang) in the embassy district is a white tablecloth spot popular with the embassy set.
If your restaurant preferences skew toward the tiny and hard to find, Liqun Roast Duck Restaurant (11 Beixiangfeng Hutong, Chongwen) is a good bet. Reaching it requires meandering through narrow hutong alleyways, which can be an exhilarating pre-dinner adventure. The reward is a feast in a courtyard garden for a fraction of the price of larger restaurants.
To avoid a lengthy wait at hot spots like Quanjude and Da Dong, call at least a day before to reserve a table. At less popular restaurants, you can often simply show up.
How to order: An average-sized duck will feed up to 8 or 10 people. Single diners and couples can sometimes order half ducks, or take home a lot of doggy bags (ducky bags?).
Etiquette: A chef will arrive with your duck and carve it. Carving is an art form; a skilled chef can carve up to 120 slices in four or five minutes, with at least a sliver of deep red skin on each piece to strike a balance between succulence and crunchiness. Watch closely and compliment his carving skills. Don’t be afraid to applaud when he finishes.
Eat like an expert: It’s polite to first serve a few slices of duck to your guests, then serve yourself. Don’t stick to just the leaner parts of the duck. Savor the skin.
The basic ingredients for wrapping the duck include crepe-like pancakes, scallions, cucumbers and a hoisin (plum) sauce. Spread a thin layer of plum sauce over a pancake. Add a few slivers of scallion and cucumber, then one or two slices of duck. Fold the bottom and side flaps of the pancake. The ingredients should poke out the open top, and you should be able to munch on the finished wrap with one hand, as you would a burrito.
Note, too, that the Chinese don’t like to waste anything, especially food, and chefs can get very creative with parts Westerners will consider extraneous. Popular side dishes include boiled duck liver, shredded duck wings, seasoned duck feet, even fried duck hearts. Eat these sans pancake, and try other condiments such as pickled vegetables, crushed garlic and white sugar. If you’re squeamish, opt for vegetable or seafood sides, or duck in spring rolls and steamed buns. Soup prepared with the leftover bones of the duck are also common.
Wash it down: Local beers such as Yanjing Beer and Beijing Beer go great with Peking duck, though the Chinese are also fond of soda at large dinners. In the past few years Chinese wines like Great Wall and Grace Vineyards have become popular with locals. If you have Chinese hosts, they may also order a strong liquor, like the distilled rice wine baijiu, for a toast. Whether you go for the potent stuff or drink something non-alcoholic, just remember to wish everyone “gan bei, ”—literally, “empty glasses.”