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I smelled it coming at least a minute before; the signature olfactory of roast meat and fat greeted me before my bird-of-honor was wheeled to the table. Servers had already placed the welcome party – a piping bamboo steamer with bó bǐng or lotus-leaf pancakes inside, neatly stacked batonnets of cucumber, melon and scallion along with dainty servings of hoisin sauce, a piquant garlic spread and finely-granulated sugar. The Peking duck show was ready to begin!
Ritual & How to eat –
The Chef meets my eye and smiles inquisitively, I nod in approval and pull out my smartphone camera just as he takes a hold of his razor-sharp kaoya knife (kaoya refers to roast duck) and begins carving. Making a small nick at the neck, he deftly glides the blade along the bird’s vertebra with a steady hand to unsheathe its amber-hued skin, unbroken. He proceeds to slice the skin into bite-sized pieces, before placing it on my plate. The Chinese consider that a seasoned Chef should be able to cut nearly 100 pieces from an average-sized bird. I am confronted with the classic Peking-duck-diner dilemma – continue watching the exquisite carving or devour my inviting plate before it goes cold.
For the next minute or so, the carver works his knife around the bird's torso, arranging each glistening piece of skin on my plate till it resembles glowing scale armour. I watch hypnotically, in deference to his craft, before finally mustering up the gumption. Picking up one while it is still warm, I sprinkle a pinch of granulated sugar before popping it in my mouth. The skin is shatteringly crisp, but melts like gossamer within seconds. Ah, such is the ephemeral glory of the Peking duck!
Next course is skin-on ‘half-moon’ meat pieces, which I gingerly dip in some hoisin sauce before bedding it beside the julienned veggies on my pancake. I have read a great deal about pancake rolling manners; I ignore everything and tuck it like a taco before stuffing it down my gullet. At last, the thigh meat is laid out before me, to be seasoned with garlic and also eaten with pancakes. Notice, the sequential progression of condiments which complement which part of the duck you are eating.
The Peking Duck, from farm to your table –
The dish begins with a healthy duckling, often a white-feathered Pekinese, which is allowed to free-range for 5-6 weeks before being fattened up for a week or two till it reaches a weight of 2.5 to 3 kg. In India, Roger Langour’s French farms, near Manesar, breeds and supplies ducks to many fine-dine Chinese restaurants.
Once slaughtered, they are blanched in hot water and then eviscerated with a cut below the wings. A pipe goes through the neck, and the bird is pumped with air to separate skin from its body. This serves the dual function of tightening that skin and detaching it from epidermal layer of fat, so that the fat bastes the meat while the bird is roasted. Stalks are propped up inside the chest cavity to stretch out the skin further. The next part is crucial – body of the duck is glazed with syrup made from maltose, red zheijang vinegar and water. Aesthetically, the coat provides a deep amber colour we associated with roast meat, but more importantly, it provides enough sugar to fuel the maillard reaction that makes it taste so damn good! The duck is hung by its neck and left to dry for a day before being filled with boiling water (so that the inside steams while the outside crisps up) and roasted in an oven at up to 200 C for about 60 minutes.
There are two schools of roasting Peking duck in China:
1) Roasting the duck with radiant heat in a closed oven, which has been heated by sorghum stalks (or any other source)
2) Roasting the duck in a open oven through convection and direct heat, over firewood (fruit wood like apple, peach, dates for flavour nuances)
The first method, which is also the oldest, is preferred by most restaurants because of its practicality. It is much easier to manoeuver an industrial gas-fired oven to roast duck. At The Golden Dragon in Taj Coromandel, the first restaurant to serve Peking duck in Chennai, Chef William uses this technique to serve a one-course skin-on-meat Peking duck. Prateek Kalra, F&B Director, tells me that upon request they will also serve the skin separately, though the bird isn’t carved at your table.
It is also the preferred method for roasting the Beijing duck at Pan-Asian in ITC Grand Chola, though the restaurant has an insider secret up its sleeve. Pan Asian’s Chinese Masterchef, and my good friend, Wen Liu previously worked at Quanjude restaurant in China. He makes the most of a gas-fired oven to achieve reasonably crisp skin, which is masterfully carved at your table to be served separately.
My experience at the beginning of this trend was at China XO at Leela Palace, where Chef Mann Chhetri (who trained at the China House, Grand Hyatt, Delhi) employs a specialised mango wood-fired oven to serve an exquisitely nuanced 3-course Peking duck meal.