I am a certified Beijing duck-eater. Seriously there is such thing. And when it comes to the title “Master Chef”, treasurer of cookery secrets and mysterious methods, I can think of no better name for the wizards who cook authentic Beijing duck. From firey ovens to bicycle pumps, it takes a good 24 hours to prepare them properly.
Most often than not you can order a portion of “crispy shredded duck” instead, which means overcooked to death, dry and tasting of rancid oil. And the glistening birds that hang in the windows of Chinatown are stupendously fatty. The real thing should skip fat altogether, it should mean only moist, juicy slices of meat in pancakes with all the trimmings and pieces of shiny, crispy skin, perfect when dipped in crystals of sugar.
You can’t get the real thing in the UK. Zen China on the Southbank is perhaps the closest. A shadow of the real thing and expensive. I also tried the pipa duck in Royal China, Baker Street, which was a shadow of a shadow and still quite expensive.
I object to the bed of stale prawn crackers; flavour should not be compromised at the expense of presentation. There were also remnants of fat, because the fat/flesh ratio is higher in the breeds of duck reared in the UK. Only the Pekin duck has the right amount of fat, which drains away whilst cooking, insulating the tender meat inside like confit.
Aside from the breed of duck, there are also different eating expectations. In China the leftover bones would be used to make the most delicious duck broth, but I guess there isn’t as much of an appetite for it here, so restaurants tend to use the remaining bits of meat in stir-fries served in gem lettuce leaves, if at all.
Heston Blumenthal’s In Search of the Perfect Peking duck resorted to separating the skin from the meat and cooking them separately in order to achieve the desired results. *Audible face-palm*. In Chinese culture, cooking things whole is a symbol in itself, most of all it makes a lot of sense in terms of keeping the moisture and flavour in. Breaking the skin in anyway is a massive faux-pas. I respect Heston and I’ve learnt a lot from watching his cooking programmes, but in this case I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
If you want to cook Beijing duck at home, it really is a lot simpler than that. The essence of the flavour, the moist meat and the crispy skin, relies on the simplest of principles. My full-time working mum and I have been cooking it for years. Basic recipe to follow.