According to a Chinese saying, no visit to Beijing is complete if you miss climbing the Great Wall or dining on Peking Duck.
Eating roast duck in China dates back as far as the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420 – 589). Up until the Southern Song Dynasty (1127 – 1279), ducks were roasted in the area around Jinling, today’s Nanjing. According to the book of The Eastern Capital: A Dream of Splendors Past, written by Meng Yuanlao (1090-1150). The book gives a lively and detailed description of life in the Northern Song capital of Bianliang, based on the author’s reminiscences of his youthful years there.
Ducks eggs are consumed more in China than in European cuisine. They are particularly popular are raw material for preserved eggs.
The following Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368; yes, there is an overlap with the Song, as the Mongol rulers of the Yuan Dynasty conquered China gradually) rulers moved their capital city to Beijing. According to the Standard History of the Yuan, Roasted Duck only spread to Beijing after Bayan of the Baarin the general of the Yuan Dynasty conquered Lin’an, the then capital city of the Southern Song Dynasty. When a Dynasty overthrows another dynasty the capital also changes, the general relocated all the skilled workers from Lin’an, to the new northern capital, Beijing and the skilled duck chef was among them.
The ducks were originally roasted in a conventional convection oven until Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911), when a new type of cooking method and special oven were invented. According to the new method, the ducks were suspended over the flame in an open oven. In that way, the interior and the skin of the ducks were cooked simultaneously, producing that well known end-product with its tender meat and crispy (brushed with a layer of sugar) skin. Preparing a Peking roast duck takes at least four steps: preparing the duck, pumping air beneath the skin, drying and roasting.
The restaurant best known for applying this method was Quanjude, founded in 1864 by Yang Quanren. Today, Quanjude has almost become a synonym of Beijing Roast Duck to many Chinese. It is a state owned enterprise listed on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange. Quanjude’s Hepingmen branch not only offers gourmets a chance to dig into the traditional food but also the whole roast-duck culture, thanks to a 1000 square meter museum on the seventh floor.
From 1949, Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the People’s Republic of China would often treat foreign guests with Peking Duck. It became part of China’s foreign diplomacy, along with table-tennis.
More local cuisinese are known for their duck dishes, in particular that of Nanjing, where people prefer to eat pieces of duck, rather than the whole thing. However, Peking Duck is still the national leader.
Quanjude had updated its menu earlier in July 2015 to showcase its long-standing culinary heritage. The latest menu features “peony duck”, which is a roast duck presented like a peony flower in full blossom — the delicately sliced breast meat is layered to give the impression of petals, while boiled towel gourd parts make up the green stalk and leaves. The dish was first served at a State banquet during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit November 2014 in Beijing, where leaders of more than 20 member economies were present. The Quanjude-made dish has since been served to customers at all branches of the restaurant in Beijing, according to Sun Zhongmin, director for the group’s innovation center. The restaurant has also launched an individual summer special menu of 11 new dishes consisting of both cold and hot items, soups, dumplings and desserts.
A recent innovation was introduced by Sun Lixin of the Bianyifang Duck Restaurant (founded in 1416) in 2003. Sun added a step before roasting – soaking the 3-kg duck in pure juice extracted from onions, carrots, celery, bay leaves, rosemary, tarragon, celery seeds, and aniseed, adding mushroom powder and mirin. A patent was granted for this process (patent nr.: CN1543863). The vegetable juice, being alkaline, eliminates the pungency of the duck but also reduces the duck fat beneath the skin.
A complete meal
Peking Duck is eaten with shredded spring onions and cucumber dipped in a sweet fermented sauce (jiang), and wrapped in thing wheat pancakes. The liver, stomach and heart are usually prepared separately and served as side dishes. The meal ends with duck soup made from the carcass and whatever else is still left of the duck.
Peking Duck is by no means light food. Even though the new roasting method removes a major part of the fat, the total Peking Duck experience it is still high in protein and carbohydrates. It is so tasty, that you keep eating, and by the time the signal from your stomach telling you that it has more than enough reaches your brain, it is too late.
Peking Duck is therefore not a dish that is eaten frequently. It is nice to reserve it for a special occasion like a holiday or a birthday, enjoying it with the entire family or a group of friends.
The typical route to innovate Peking Duck and adapt it to the life of the modern urban Chinese is to chop the bird in small one-bite pieces. It so happens that Chinese love to nibble on bones, or chew on tougher bits of meat, much different from the Western preference for tender meat.
A number of companies have therefore developed duck wings, duck tongues, duck necks, duck hearts or duck gizzards as one-bite snacks. They are usually individually wrapped, with around 20 snacks in a larger pack.
These products are much easier to take pack in your hand luggage on a trip, or eat while watching TV or reading a book. Sharing a few duck wings is also less of a burden to the body than eating an entire duck.
Juewei duck necks – the ultimate taste
One manufacturer of duck products has gained national fame with its duck necks that are not only sold as packed foods in supermarkets, but also fresh and hot from its 5000 special outlets.The company was established in 2006 as Jueweixuan Business Management Corporation in Changsha (Hunan). A consortium including Kunwu Jiuding Capital Co., Ltd. and Fosun Group has invested RMB 260 million in Juewei in 2011.
The company’s brand name Juewei literally means ‘ultimate taste’. This may strike us as rather presumptuous, but the popularity of the products (as well as the large number of copy cats) seems to indicate that the company has lived up to the promise contained in its name. Juewei Duck Necks are as well known in China as KFC’s hot wings. It is an interesting fight between the Chinese duck and the American chicken, and in view of the recent quality problems that have affected KFC in China, the duck seems to be on the winning hand. However, the battle is still going one.
By the way; the standard recipe for duck necks includes . . . chicken bones, great and cheap flavour enhancers.
Zhouheiya – a model in brand building
Zhouheiya (Hubei) is another Chinese fast food chain known for their signature spicy duck necks. It gained its name from its founder, Zhou Fuyu. Zhouheiya has 400 stores in communities, airports, train stations and other major locations across China. An alliance between a food chain famous for duck necks and a robot might not seem like the most likely combination. But Zhouheiya made it possible by advertising in the film Transformers 4, benefiting immensely from the cooperation. Zhouheiya has ambitious plans to enlarge its production in America and Europe.
Zhouheiya recorded a net profit of RMB 306 mln in 2015, and is planning to go public in Hong Kong in 2016 to raise up to $500 mln. Credit Suisse Group AG and Morgan Stanley are sponsors, or banks responsible for the IPO.
Duck necks have become such a fad these days, that a duck neck eating competition was organised in Wuhan in July 2015. According to the rules, participants were asked to finish a 350 gr box of duck necks and leave no more than 150 gr of bones in as short a time as possible.
From duck necks to ducklings
The Chinese affection for nibbling on duck necks has stimulated the creation of several innovative dishes. Here is lovely one that I found on a Chinese recipe site. The name of the dish is ‘miniature babao calabash ducks’. The term babao ‘eight treasures’ has been introduced in an earlier post on babao porridge. As the picture shows, the ‘ducklings’ in this dish indeed look like miniature calabashes. They are in fact sections of duck necks, stuffed with glutinous rice. On the plate they strike you as small calabashes. Apparently, the Chinese cook does not want to run the risk that discriminating customers will criticise that they ‘don’t look like ducklings at all’. So he has carved a ducks out of vegetables; to make the dish more ‘ducky’. This is one of those Chinese paradoxes: the veggie ducks look more like ducks that the duck neck ducklings do.
Even duck blood can be transformed into earnings. Huaying Cherry Valley (Xinyang, Henan) is investing in improving duck blood processing. The company has a special subsidiary to develop a range of products from duck blood, including blood powder and blood beancurd. The company processed more than 10 000 t of duck blood in 2014.
Dong Zhenxiang, Beijing’s legendary Peking Duck maestro, once joked that would serve up his specialty on a hamburger bun with a side of fries. Da Dong’s birds are so enshrined for special occasions that a downmarket sandwich, paper-wrapped for easy takeaway, seemed just plain odd. But no－he really pulled it off and we must admit that Dong is really on to something. His succulent signature duck comes with a tart bit of pickle in the salad layer that makes the plum sauce sing on the fresh bun.
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Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.