Food & Drink: Full Marx for the duck soup

OLD CHINESE proverb say, and I do not believe the proverb exists: 'You're not a man if you can't reach the Great Wall, and you're a fool if you haven't tasted Peking roast duck.' At huge expense I managed to prove my manhood. I reached the Wall. I did not climb it, walk it, commune with it, but I did reach it; and if I did not stay longer, it was because my cicerone for the day had arranged a Peking roast duck lunch. As Chinese meals take place at odd (for the Westerner) times, that meant reaching an outlying district of Peking by 11am. (Dinner engagements are at four, so be warned.) I knew it would take at least an hour to reach our destination.

But I am no fool and I had my duck and convinced myself that my journey was not in vain. For a variety of reasons, the duck I ate in Peking was radically different from any I have eaten elsewhere.

The traditional place to eat duck in Peking is the 130-year-old Quanjude restaurant, in the heart of the city. Due to the pressure of tourism, which required updating of its premises, Quanjude itself was closed (to reopen at the end of the year with a capacity of 1,600), but fortunately it had already spawned two branches. It was to the Haidan branch, near the university, that we repaired, where the manager and his staff had laid on a traditional duck lunch for us in a private room.

Let me start, then, with the most obvious difference between eating roast duck in Britain and eating it in Peking, and this is that in China you eat the whole duck - and when I say whole, I mean every single part of it, inner and outer, head to tail, backbone to webbed feet - and not just the apparently succulent bits. I do not pretend to have caught the whole of the menu, but here is a rough list of what we ate: mustard duck webfoot, salted duck livers, liver and gizzard stew, fried duck heart, cold duck tongues. (And this was before the piece de resistance itself.)

Now, to my knowledge, a duck has but one liver, one heart, the usual gizzards, a single tongue, two feet and so on. So how did we manage to make a meal before a meal? The answer is twofold: first that the Chinese, used to wasting nothing, can make a little go an awfully long way, and that any speciality of this sort is 'completed' with obscure vegetables or renderings of other unmentionable parts of the duck; and second, that there must be some diners who do not get the full treatment, thus providing for those of us doing it the traditional way. You will want to know, were these good? The answer is: excellent.

The main course, the duck itself, arranged on plates with crossed legs to indicate that we were indeed eating the whole duck, was brought to the table and carved before us, with a deftness I associate with long tradition. As you know, one eats it by stuffing the meat into pancakes, having first covered the meat with the traditional paste made of sugar, sweet bean paste, sesame oil and water, and adding sliced spring onions.

The flavour of the duck eaten in Peking is considerably different from what I have eaten elsewhere. Obviously, the ducks (the white Peking duck) themselves (which are raised on special farms, on a feed of grain) are distinctive. The duck is slaughtered at between three and four months.

Brought to the restaurant, it is half-filled with water, plugged and then put into a brick oven, where it hangs on hooks in vast rows, and is roasted to a golden brown while the inside is steamed by the evaporating water. Here, the most important difference is that the ovens are wood-fired: not just with any old wood, but with wood from the ju-jube, a pear or apricot. The flavour is as distinctive as using hickory wood for barbecuing.

The conclusion of the meal - the conclusion of almost every meal in China - was duck soup. And I have to say I have never eaten finer soup than the duck soup I ate in Peking: delicate in flavour, refined in the blending of ingredients (thin-sliced winter melon, ginger, scallions, Shao Hsing wine) and utterly fragrant.

If you want to try roasting a Peking duck yourself, the secret lies in the sequence of the cooking. Place the duck, breast down, on a rack in a large roasting dish for 20 minutes at 375-400F/185-200C/gas 6-7; turn and roast breast meat for another 20 minutes; remove duck and rack from oven and place in a large bain-marie; return to the oven and bake, turning once, for another 20 minutes.

For the 'pancakes', make a dough with flour and water, soft enough to be worked with a wooden spoon but not sticky. Knead for 5 minutes, cover with a damp cloth and leave for 20 minutes. Roll into a long sausage and cut into 12 pieces; flatten each slice, then roll out until thin. Heat a pan thoroughly and cook on each side until lightly flecked. This takes about 45 seconds. Remove, fold into triangles and wrap in cloth until needed.

No ju-jube wood? Worry not. This will work with any duck, suit any stomach and requires no visit to the Great Wall.

Suggested Topics
Voices
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy as ECB finally wield the axe
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
a clockwork orange, stanley kubrick
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas