Beijing duck may not be the most difficult dish to make in all the world, concedes Ken Hom, who leads our masterclass this week, but done properly it is time-consuming. The restaurant menu which announces; Peking Duck - Please give 24 hours notice for this dish - is the honest one.
Ken Hom, a Chinese American whose family roots are Cantonese, is the leading expert on Chinese food in the English-speaking world. In 15 years he has graduated from the boyishly eager television presenter (on BBC) to Mandarin-suited dignity. He now sprouts hair on his face, creating the alarming illusion of Sir Peter Hall auditioning for Fu Man Chow.
Ken Hom was passing through the UK on a surge of activity, demonstrations, TV, videos and restaurant consultancy. To illustrate this world-famous dish, he'd commandeered the kitchens of the 300-seater Imperial City, which is in a peculiar site for a Chinese restaurant, in the basement of the Royal Exchange.
Ken Hom is explaining the difficulties in translating Chinese food to the West. Not only does China have an old, honoured and sophisticated cuisine, he says, but food also has its own special vocabulary. There's a special word to describe the texture of a piece of meat (chicken, duck, pork) in the mouth, soah(ng) - a bit like song with a glottal stop instead of the final nasal - "You could say silky, or satiny, but it wouldn't convey the unique experience."
Nor are there words in English to describe the different degrees of heat in a wok. "The temperature for cooking Chinese food is critical. We assess the heat, we watch the changes in the food as it cooks, and most of all we listen to it. Only experience can tell you what is right. Timing is the essence."
And time. Time is also the essential difference between Chinese cooking and French cooking. French cooking is a marathon, Chinese cooking a 50- yard dash. "I'll show you when we've done the Beijing duck."
To the Beijing duck. It is the least typical of all Chinese dishes, he says, leading the way to the kitchen. We pass preparation tables stacked with plastic boxes of vegetables, meat and fish cut into small pieces, some in their spicy marinades, containers of seasonings and herbs, sliced spring onions, chopped garlic, shredded ginger, salad garnishes, yellow and black bean pastes, bowls of dark and light soy sauce, salt, sugar (no MSG here) and five-gallon pans of chicken stock. The essence of Chinese cooking is organisation, Ken Hom explains.
At the very back of the kitchen we reach a row of eight pale white ducks, suspended from wire hangers, drying out between two electric fans. "They must dry out completely. The skin must be taut, so we dip each duck into boiling water with vinegar to close the pores. In most English ducks the pores are too large; the Cherry Valley duck is OK, it's a Chinese variety."
Beside the ducks is a bucket of soy sauce sweetened with malt syrup. When the ducks are dry enough they are brushed with this mixture, assuming the discoloured appearance of a bad bruising. Further applications take it to a glassy brown stage, suitable for oven cooking.
We move across the kitchen to the oven, a gas-fired stainless steel oval drum, 3ft high, like a tandoor. From a rail at the top he can hang up to eight ducks at a time. "We roast the ducks for 45 minutes. It's very simple. The fat runs off to the bottom, the skin crisps up like varnish." He can peer in through metal peepholes to check progress and adjust heat if necessary.
Beijing duck is very modern Chinese dish, says Ken Hom, pausing for effect. "It didn't appear until the 1600s." He's making the point that Chinese cooking goes back around 5,000 years. But even today few of China's 1,000 million inhabitants have ovens. "Ovens, with their wasteful consumption of fuel, existed only to serve the court." Beijing duck was therefore a delicacy representing conspicuous consumption during the time of the Ming Dynasty.
"Another thing. It was only the skin which was the delicacy, served with the steamed pancakes. The meat was chopped up and served as a stir-fry later in the meal. And the bones were chopped up to make a soup served at the end of the meal."
To prepare the true Beijing duck, Ken Hom says, you should blow it up with air. "You tie the skin around the neck, insert a pump the other end and blow it up until the skin loosens from the flesh. Then you dry it. That ensures the skin doesn't get soggy when it roasts. I've seen this done in Beijing. It's very much a restaurant dish, never cooked at home.
"I have no idea how the British style of serving Beijing duck came about." He means the practice of serving the crispy duck at the table, where a waiter or waitress will shred it with two forks, removing it from the bone. "I don't undersand this. The Chinese love chewing the bones, they don't throw them away."
No one in the UK prepares authentic Beijing duck. Even Ken, and he regards himself as purist, uses a short cut. He roasts the ducks in advance and leaves them to cool. When one, or a half, is ordered, it will be quickly deep-fried for a few minutes to crisp up and warm through.
Ken gives us his home recipe for Beijing duck below, and also suggests this alternative, Szechuan duck. Rub the inside of a bird with Chinese five-spice powder (from a Chinese store) and steam it for two hours. Leave to cool at least two hours. When ready to serve, cut in two or four and deep fry for 10 minutes. Slice it and serve with salad, or shred it and serve with steamed pancakes.
You can buy Chinese pancakes from a Chinese store; or you can even serve Chinese duck with hot pitta bread. Or you can make your own pancakes (see below). If the idea of no compromise appeals to you, invest in a set of bamboo steamers. They will bring much aesthetic pleasure to your dining.
Now Ken Hom is bored with duck. He is bursting to show off his wokmanship, what he regards as real Chinese cooking. The sprint, not the marathon. The technique of stir-frying is quick but not careless. The preparation is long, some ingredients being partly cooked, and all are cut to appropriately small pieces to speed up cooking. Flavourings are precise and artful: sweet, sour, salt, bitter.
He takes his place at a row of woks. Other chefs are in place, cooking. The noise is extraordinary but, unlike the general clatter of the Western kitchen, it sounds like a fireworks display; there's the whoosh of gas- fired jets, turned up to furnace heat; explosions of steam as moist food hits bubbling hot oil. Everything is hissing, sizzling, crackling. Cooling streams of water roll down a stainless steel wall behind the cookers. The woks are dashed into rinsing water at every stage, washed, cleaned and put back on the flame.
The maestro wishes to demonstrate his speed skills. Wok in hand, he raises the heat on a flame-thrower jet. A ladleful of oil ("we use a lot of oil") goes in, and when it's exactly the right heat (not much above that of boiling water) he gently cooks the marinated pork fillets to tenderness, a matter of barely a minute because the meat is sliced thinly. This technique is called "velvet cooking."
He scoops up the pork with a strainer. He pours off all the oil. Rinses the pan. Puts in a drop more oil. When it's hot, seasonings go in, bang, bang, bang, in quick succession, onion, ginger, garlic. Then sliced peppers, and a few vegetables.
"I'm listening to the pan," he says. In goes chilli and bean paste, and volatile fumes swirl around, stinging the eyes. Now a pinch of cornflour ("we don't use much thickening"), and a generous half ladleful of chicken stock, two kinds of soy sauce, sugar, salt. He tastes with a finger.
It's ready. ("The vegetables must be overcooked. Or raw.") He tosses the meat back in, and it immediately becomes coloured by the dark sauces in the pan. Now he's turning it out on to a plate. The whole dish has taken less than two minutes.
How does it taste? Hot, spicy, salty, juicy. The texture of the pork is lovely - smooth, velvety, silky, satiny. How do you say, soah(ng).
1 duck, 312-4lb/1.6-1.8 kg, fresh or frozen, preferably Cherry Valley
For the honey syrup mixture:
2 pints/1.2 litres water
3 tablespoons honey
3 tablespoons dark soy sauce
5 fl oz/150 ml Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
Chinese pancakes (see below)
6 tablespoons hoisin sauce or sweet, bean sauce
24 spring onion brushes (see below)
If the duck is frozen, thaw it thoroughly. Rinse it well and blot it completely dry with kitchen paper. Insert a meat hook near the neck.
Using a sharp knife, cut the lemon into 14in/5mm slices, leaving the rind on. Place the slices in a large pan with the rest of the honey syrup ingred-ients and bring the mixture to the boil. Turn the heat to low and simmer for about 20 minutes. Using a large ladle or spoon, pour this mixture over the duck several times, as if to bathe it, until the skin of the duck is completely coated. Hang the duck over a tray or roasting pan and leave in a cool, well ventilated place to dry, for about 4 to 5 hours, longer if possible. (To speed up the process place it in front of a fan.) When the duck has finished drying, the skin should feel like parchment paper.
Pre-heat the oven to 475F/240C/ Gas 9. Meanwhile, place the duck on a roasting rack in a roasting pan, breast side up. Put 5f1 oz/150 ml of water into the roasting pan. (This will prevent the fat from splattering,) Now put the duck into the oven and roast it for 15 minutes. Turn the heat down to 350F/180C/Gas 4 and continue to roast for 1 hour, 10 minutes.
Remove the duck from the oven and let it sit for at least 10 minutes before you carve it. Using a cleaver or a sharp knife, cut the skin and meat into pieces and arrange them on a warm serving platter. Serve at once with Chinese pancakes, spring onion brushes and a bowl of hoisin sauce or sweet bean sauce. Hoisin sauce (made with soy bean paste, sugar and chillies) is available in jars from Chinese and Asian stores.
SPRING ONION BRUSHES
24 spring onions
Trim each onion to 3in, cutting roots off the bulb. Make a 1in lengthwise cut at the green end, roll through 90 degrees and make a second cut. Soak onions in iced water and they will curl open into flower brushes. Pat dry.
CHINESE STEAMED PANCAKES
Makes 18 pancakes
10oz/275g plain flour
8fl oz/250ml very hot water
2 tablespoons sesame oil
Put the flour into a large bowl. Stir the hot water gradually into the flour, mixing all the time with chopsticks or a fork until the water is fully incorporated. Add more water if the mixture seems dry. Then remove the mixture from the bowl and knead it with your hands until it is smooth. This should take about 8 minutes. Put the dough back into a bowl, cover it with a clean, damp towel and let it rest for about 30 minutes.
After the resting period take the dough out of the bowl and knead it again for about 5 minutes, dusting it with a little flour if it is sticky. Once the dough is smooth, form it into a roll about 46cm (18in) long and cut the roll into 18 equal segments. Roll each into a ball.
Take two of the dough balls. Dip one side of one ball into the sesame oil and place the oiled side on top of the other ball. Take a rolling pin, and roll the two simultaneously into a circle about 6in/15cm in diameter. It is important to do this because the resulting dough will remain moist inside and you will be able to roll them thinner but avoid the risk of overcooking them later.
Heat a frying pan or wok over a very low flame. Put the double pancake into the wok or pan and cook it until it has dried on one side. Flip it over and cook the other side. Remove from the pan, peel the 2 pancakes apart and set them aside. Repeat until all have been cooked.
Steam the pancakes to re-heat them, or you could wrap them tightly in a double sheet of foil and put them into a pan containing 1in/2.5cm of boiling water. Cover the pan, turn the heat down very low and simmer until they are reheated.
Don't be tempted to reheat them in the oven as this will dry them out. If you want to freeze cooked pancakes, wrap them tightly in clingfilm first. When using pancakes which have been frozen, let them thaw in the refrigerator first before reheating. !Reuse content