Beijing Roast Duck

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.

royalchina_duck

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.

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The perfect dumpling

Dumplings. Not the suet-flour-balls business soaking up unctuous meaty stews. No I mean something completely different. In Nepal they are known as momos, in Japan they are gyoza and in China there are a hundred names for all its steamed, boiled and fried cousins. But for me, there is only one dumpling. I refer to the ultimate New Year celebratory dish of China, jiaozi.

Every Sunday, while most of my friends were enjoying, or thinking of enjoying a traditional Roast with all the trimmings, I would be making and eating round after round of delicious dumplings. In my lifetime, I must have helped my mother make an extortionate number of these lovable morsels, well into the tens of thousands. It’s very much a team task, there are several stages and it usually takes several hours.

So why do it? There are so many more hours left in the day from marinating a joint of meat and letting the oven do its thing. Surely, if you spend so much longer making food than eating it, life just seems a bit imbalanced. Well, not so. It started out as a great way of getting my baby brother to eat vegetables. To the point of which, such scheming has led to him to attain a more than satisfactory rugby-playing physique and the title “baby brother” now sounds ludicrous.

Secondly, compared to all of my friends, I’d say I have a more than commonly close relationship with my mother. I’m sure making dumplings together isn’t the only reason, but being the pros we are, we can chat as we go along and we have our own niches: I’ll do the kneading and rolling, she does the filling and folding. We work around each other so naturally, in contrast to the usual misunderstandings in daily life at work and school, dumpling-making sessions are sacred.

Surely this is mission accomplished. In a sense yes. The time I have spent with my mother is the reward in itself. It’s also very easy to make delicious dumplings. But it doesn’t stop us from wanting to make the epitome of all dumplings, to reach the inner sanctum of understated perfection, the ultimate combination of juicy tasty filling, pastry with a tantalising bite and a dumpling that sits proud and plump on its own without a sagging or squashed look about it… Yes ladies and gentlemen, that is worth fighting for.

Secret family recipes are a myth. Recipes change with the number of times you use it. In reality, we never follow recipes, we work with what’s in the fridge, we’ve picked up some tricks over the years, but we’re still picking them up as we go along. This is definitely a case of the journey mattering more than the end. Who would have thought: the humble dumpling could be a metaphor for life? So watch this space, more dumpling trials to follow.