Peking Duck: From Head to Toe

Speaking of Chinese cuisine, what are some of the dishes pop out of your mind? Too many, right!? There are 34 provinces in China and each province have their own specialties. And, there are eight major cuisines in China. Today, I want to talk about Beijing Kaoya or better known as Peking Duck.

Peking Duck or Beijing Kaoya, a specialty of Beijing (Picture Credit)

Peking Duck history can trace all the way back to as early as the northern and southern dynasties which is around 420 AD – 589 AD in Shi Zhen Lu has been recorded as “grilled duck”. This is the earliest record about Peking Duck in Chinese history. Later on, Peking Duck is further developed in the Yuan and Ming Dynasty. Hongwu Emperor of the Ming Dynasty established his capital in Nanjing, the imperial chef of the Ming dynasty selected Nanjing’s meaty lake ducks for imperial cuisine. In order to increase the flavor of duck dishes, the chefs used charcoal to roast the duck, making it crisp and fragrant, fat but not greasy. It was praised by people and was named “roast duck” by the imperial palace. (“A Cultural Classic: Peking Duck”)

Gradually, this dish brought to Beijing and developed in Beijing as a specialty. Peking Duck is always a crucial part of the imperial cuisine and for the upper class since this dish requires a long time of preparation starting from feeding the duck. Therefore, this is not common for commoners back then.

Here is a quick overview of Peking Duck’s history from the Eater’s:

Peking Duck not only has a long history and embedded deeply in Beijing culture, interestingly enough, but this dish also serves as a great “officer” when it comes to diplomacy. In 1971, Kissinger came to Beijing for secret talks with premier Zhou Enlai before US President Richard Nixon’s visit to China. On the 10th of July, Kissinger came to the Great Hall of the People to attend the talks held here. As recorded in history, at the beginning of the talks, both sides were very cautious and nervous because they did not know each other well. By midday, the talks had failed to produce even one agreement. At this time, Zhou Enlai said, “we might as well have dinner first, otherwise  the Peking Duck is getting cold.” During this lunch, Peking Duck, of course, plays the “leading role”. Zhou introduced the Peking Duck to Kissinger, and he helped and served him the duck slices on the lotus leaf Bing. Near the end of the lunch, Zhou proposed a toast to the success of the talks. This afternoon and the second day of talks made positive progress. Food supposes to make people relax and enjoy, this is probably the reason why, “the diplomatic officer”, the Peking Duck helped to make progress. (“Interview with Dr Henry Kissinger.”)

Picture Credit

Soon after, two restaurants are known for their Peking Duck and their longstanding Beijing culinary heritage. They are open in Beijing until today. The very first one is called Bianyifang and is established in Mishihutong in 1416. Another one is called Quanjude and is established in Qianmen in 1864. Even though both of the restaurants are known for Peking Duck but their cooking styles are completely different. Bianyifang does Menlu Duck and Quanjude does Gualu Duck.

Bianyifang Peking Duck House in Beijing (Picture Credit)
Menlu Duck in the Menlu (Picture Credit)

Bianyifang’s Menlu Duck, “men” literary means the food cooked in a closed space with a high temperature but the fire is low or off. Peking Duck is roasted in the oven that is built directly from the ground by laying bricks and stones. The roasting process is done in the oven with no direct fire. First, sorghum stalks and charcoals are going to be burned in the oven until the inner wall of the oven is heated to a certain extent and turns gray. Next, take the fire out of the oven and then hang the duck inside and close the door. The door cannot be opened in the middle, nor can the duck be moved. The remaining heat will cook the roast duck. (“New Locations for Qianmen’s Traditional Restaurants”)

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Quanjude Peking Duck House in Beijing (Picture Credit)

Quanjude’s Gualu Duck, “gua” means “hanging”. This cooking style is similar to the Menlu Duck because Gualu Duck is also cooked in the oven. However, the fire and oven are different. For the fire, they use jujube wood, pear wood and other fruit wood for the direct fire. The use of fruity wood is smokeless and aromatic. Another difference is the oven. There is no door for the oven which made it easier for hanging the duck inside. During the roasting process, the duck can be flipped and checked at anytime. Usually, the chef will regularly switch the position of the duck in order to make the duck heated and roasted evenly.

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Chef is checking the Peking Duck inside the Gualu (Picture Credit)

Since Bianyifang and Quanjude cooking method is different, if you come to Beijing and ask a Beijinger which restaurants Peking Duck is more tastier, they will most likely to tell you to try both. Since the duck is cooked differently, even though they look the same on the outside, but the texture, the meat, the flavor is quite different. (“Duck-Beijing Duck.”) 

Speaking of the Peking Duck, what’s unique about it is not just the roasting process. It requires a long process from the selection of the duck, preparation, roasting, to serving. As I mentioned before, the original Peking Duck selects the lack ducks raised in Nanjing. They are commonly to be relatively skinner, smaller, and black feathered. However, as Peking Duck becomes a specialty of Beijing and nowadays people are able to afford, the ducks are raised domesticated and commonly white feathered.

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The duck on the right was being used in the imperial cuisine and the duck on the left is more commonly used in today’s Peking Duck (Picture Credit)

When it comes to preparation, there are a few notably process, eviscerating: airing, and marinating. When eviscerates the duck, the duck is not being cut open. Instead, they eviscerate the duck by making a small cut about 4 cm long under the left side wing. In this way, the shape of the duck will remain until serving.

Then, they pump air into the duck through this cut. This step is aimed to keep the duck meat from drying. Another benefit is that every part of the skin is swollen and it helps to cook the skin thin and crisp. Once the duck is hung and dried. Check out 5:48 in this video and see the traditional way of airing the duck. 

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Pouring soy sauce mixture on to the duck
Picture Credit

The marinating process starts. The outside of the duck will be brushed with spices and soy sauce mixture for the flavor and a layer of maltose syrup for the beautiful brown color. Inside of the duck with being filled with fragrant vegetables like ginger, green onion to get rid of any weird flavors and other goodness like jujube and herbal medicines for nutrition purposes and great aroma. To end the preparation process, the duck should hang and let dry for 24 hours before roasting.

When serving the duck (my favorite part! Yeah!), the whole duck will be brought in front of the table on a movable tray, not directly on the serving table. Duck is served along with cucumber slices, green onion slices, sugar, dipping sauce, and steamed Bing. The chef will carve the duck meat one piece after another. First, the chef will present a small plate of duck skin from the stomach part. The duck skin is still warm and attaches to some fat. The duck skin supposed to dip into sugar. The warmth, the fatness, and the crispness dance in the mouth. Since the duck skin is coated in sugar, the sweetness takes away the greasiness and oiliness. It just tastes like sweet, warm, and crispy butter. (“Notes From a Devon Kitchen”)

Personally speaking, this is the best bite out of the entire Peking Duck experience! The reason why there are only a few pieces of pure duck skin being cut off and enjoy like this is because eating too much of it can be greasy and it is important to taste every bit of the meat with some skin on. Next, another small plate of meat. There are only around three to five pieces and it is the meat along the duck’s spine. The meat is very tender and the texture is very special. It kind of tastes like thinly sliced steak. Normally, people eat it without any dipping sauces but for its pure taste. Then, the chef starts to carve all the delicious meat out of the duck. Each piece of meat contains some duck skin, fat, and meat. Here is the best way to enjoy Peking Duck: take a thin piece of Bing in your hand, put a couple of cucumber slices, green onion slices, some dipping sauce, and four to five slices of duck from your chef. Then, wrap it well and enjoy in one bite! If you want to know how good it tastes, you have to try it out by yourself. The pretty balance between fat and meat, the flavor from the dipping sauce, the cucumber and green onion as fresheners!

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Table setting for Peking Duck (Picture Credit)

Let me tell you, this is how tasty the Peking Duck is, to everyone. When I was in high school, after I introduced myself as a Beijinger, one girl who is from Pennsylvania come to me and ask me whether or not I eat Peking Duck every day at home. She mentioned she had Peking Duck once in a Chinese restaurant in New York and it was so good.

Yes, the Peking Duck culture is of course brought from China to the U.S. and around the world. You might commonly see geese and ducks hanging in front of the window of a Chinese restaurant. However, that is not Peking Duck. There is another Chinese cooking method that involves hanging, it is the Cantonese Siu Mei. Therefore, some of the Cantonese restaurants also sell roasted duck, but it is not Peking Duck. Some Cantonese restaurants provide Bing and other dipping sauce and call it Peking Duck. Corner 28 located in Flushing is a great example.

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Cantonese style. This is not Peking Duck. Peking Duck is served warm therefore will never hang in front of the window (Picture Credit)

Peking Duck also has its history in the U.S. In 1875, the British shipped a batch of Peking ducks directly to the United States. From then on, Peking Duck starts its journey in the U.S. Some restaurants aims to recreate the exact taste of Peking Duck and some restaurants try out more fusion style. The dipping sauce is being changed to raspberry sauce and peanut sauce in order to adjust into the new market. Some even created Peking style Mexican taco with Peking Duck meat on top.

One restaurant in New York that is newly opened for Peking Duck is called Dadong. I highly recommend this restaurant because this is a famous Peking Duck place recognized by Chinese people in China. I had Peking Duck in Dadong and it was a wonderful experience. 

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Peking Duck from Dadong (Picture Credit)
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Japanese street food style Peking Duck (Picture Credit)

Peking duck in Japan is being sale as street food. They use a much thicker Bing and wrap it with roasted duck, sauces, and lots of vegetables and serve it on the street. When I first saw this, I was shocked. I have never imagined an imperial cuisine back in history can serve as street food. I am definitely interested in giving it a try!

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Peking Duck Pizza (Picture Credit)

It happens that there is a similar case, there is Peking Duck pizza from Papa Johns! This has become a new food with Italian characteristics. Speaking about the making of Peking duck pizza, it is a dish made of thick crust pizza, roast duck sauce, roast duck legs, leeks and so on. This “Peking duck pizza” is a combination of traditional Beijing scenic spot cuisine and Italian characteristics. Fusion style starts to emerge into Peking Duck.

Here is a documentary dedicated to Peking duck chef, Zhang Liqun, owner of Liqun Roast Duck in Beijing. In this documentary, it explains how gualu roasting over burning fruit tree wood makes his duck taste unique.

Peking Duck is a doubtless famous and classic dish of Beijing and now It is famous all over the world. Peking Duck is a unique delicacy created more than a thousand years ago by the Chinese people with their farming civilization. After thousands of years of inheritance and development, its cooking techniques and application methods have been constantly optimized. In particular, with the imperial exquisite cuisine and the pursuit of taste, Peking Duck, a Chinese cuisine, is rich in more ritual and human touch, enduring and renowned around the world. Tasting the delicacy “roast duck” not only gives people satisfaction on the tip of their tongue, but also is a kind of experience and enjoyment of a good life.


Works Cited

Duck-Beijing Duck.Beijing Duck and The Roast Duck Restaurants of Beijing, Internet

Archive, Web. 15 Mar. 2019.

Interview with Dr Henry Kissinger.” Episode China, Web. 16 Mar. 2019.

Jurries, Amy. “A Cultural Classic: Peking Duck.Pilot Guides: Travel, Explore, Learn, Web. 16 Mar. 2019.

Mill, Marc. “Notes From a Devon Kitchen.Quay Press, Web. 15 Mar. 2019.

Zhang, Jackie. “New Locations for Qianmen’s Traditional Restaurants.Internet Archive, 2007, Web. 15 Mar. 2019.