There’s more than one way to roast a duck. That’s not an expression, but it is true. And of the many ways to roast a duck, there must then be a best way. There is. It’s technical, it’s complicated, time consuming and centuries old. I’m talking about Peking Duck.
Peking Duck, a traditional Chinese roasted duck dish with a complex days-long preparation (engineered mostly to achieve perfectly crispy skin) is served in courses, most famously with small pancakes, hoisin, and vegetables. The technique may have evolved slightly over its nearly 800 year history, but when any food holds form, and our attention, for as long Peking Duck has, it becomes hard to ignore it and you’d be well-advised not to.
Surely you’ve seen it on Chinese restaurant menus or hanging from the window of a good Chinese market, if you’re lucky enough to live within striking distance of one, but somehow, after all its years of quiet affirmation and adoration, Peking Duck still flies mystifyingly under the radar.
Named after the city of Beijing or “Peking” pronounced “pay-cheeng” as it was written in English before the Communist Revolution, Peking Duck is a stalwart of Chinese cooking, tried, tested and wholly beloved. It holds court as the national dish for the world’s most populous nation and celebrated culinary cultures. Appearing first during the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368) it wasn’t until the Ming Dynasty (of vase fame), some couple hundred years later, that Peking Duck became revered by the ruling and monied classes, dubbed a symbol of wealth and a staple at royal banquets and other kingly affairs.
Widely considered a celebration food by its Chinese inventors, it’s traditionally served as part of the multi-course meal with different parts of the duck claiming individuality among them. Despite the variety, Peking Duck is celebrated most often for its thin, glistening, and sharply crispy skin.
Ed Schoenfeld and chef Joe Ng of Decoy a 4-year old New York City eatery specializing in the beloved duck dish, are helping to usher the centuries-old tradition into a more current climate. While Schoenfeld and his team may have modernized the setting, with kitschy duck figurines and cozy dim lighting (feels like anything but banquet hall), they’ve wisely left the time-honored traditions for preparation and service intact.
Some interpretations of a Peking Duck tasting menu call for the skin to be served alone (that’s how good it is) with moo shu and fixings with the actual duck meat incorporated into a later course. At Decoy, a more “duck focused” service, as Schoenfeld refers to it, duck and skin are served together; a harmony of rich, salty skin and sweet delicate duck meat, swaddled in soft warm pancake. A trio of bean, peanut, and hoisin sauce work to bind and melt while the raw cucumbers provide a bright freshness rescuing the palate from too much richness; just as the crack of a pickle is designed to rescue your mouth from a greasy hamburger mid-way through.
Schoenfeld minces no words admitting affection for Peking Duck is only “skin” deep and if that part of the feast is not done correctly, you’ve largely failed. Beyond crisp the duck skin must be lean and not heavy with fat, which drips from the duck as it roasts in an upside down hang. But there is more to it than gravity to achieve Peking perfection.
A Peking Duck’s journey from farm to table is a bit of a harrowing one. To start, a mix of soy sauce and sugar or malt is violently rubbed over the skin for flavor and hang-dried overnight. At Decoy the inner cavity is also rubbed with a soy and spice marinade, a step that Schoenfeld is careful not miss but notes many chefs will forgo.
Following that, the duck gets a reverse Hoover, as air is pumped in through the mouth. It is alarming to watch no doubt but important, causing a separation of skin from flesh that allows space for fat to render on both sides. After a hot broth boil to firm up the skin and another full overnight hang, the duck is ready for its final lacquer of sugary hoisin and a vertical roasting on high heat, over a direct flame fueled (traditionally) by wood from a peach or plum tree.
From there it is left to sheer human skill as the duck is carefully butchered separating the skin from the meat over linen so that juice from the duck doesn’t soften the skin. Two chefs work in tandem on this, one working the skin while the other carves. Finally a rich duck broth consommé is splashed over the meat and it’s served.
Thoughtful modern takes, like Decoy’s, are careful to maintain the critical elements no matter how small they may seem. All must be paid their attention even if some sing louder than others –homemade pillowy pancakes, moist and delicate duck meat, a sweet and smoky bean sauce and of course the divinely sticky and crackling skin.
If you’ve had good Peking Duck, you know why and how it’s maintained a steady and significant place in the food landscape for so long. Despite its quiet confidence, Peking Duck has found its way into the history books and according to Nixon-era lore, may have even helped write them, too. A 12-course lunch served to Henry Kissinger and Chinese leaders from the world-famous Quan Jude in Beijing, is said to have been so well received that it eased tensions and opened doors for President Nixon to broker the eventual detente And while it may not solve all our problems, the world might just be better off with a little more Peking Duck to go around.
Header image courtesy of Shutterstock.