Saturday, December 16, 2017

Around the World in 80 Dishes: China

Although it may not seem like it, I have been working on my personal culinary challenge, Around the World in 80 Dishes.  There are at least 3 challenges in the works, at various stages of research, planning and execution.  However, there was one that came out of nowhere and has reached completion before any other challenge.  It is China.  

Theoretically, the preparation of a main dish from China would be an extremely difficult challenge for me.  The reason lies in the research and planning.  Chinese cuisine varies greatly from region to region.  From Sichuan to Hebei or Gansu to Hunnan, China could present a complete challenge on its own.  The mere thought of choosing one main dish from a country that has multiple cuisines would bog down the planning for days, weeks and even months.  Yet, that did not happen in this case.  And the reason is simple: my beautiful Angel bought me a whole halal duck from Costco.  With that duck, I had my challenge ... to make Peking Duck, which is considered by many to be a national dish of China. 


The history of the Peking Duck begins, not in Peking (or Beijing), but in Nanjiang, the capital of the Jiangsu province.  The dish was first recorded as an imperial dish of the Yuan Dynasty, which ruled China from Nanjiang from 1206 A.D. to 1368 A.D.  The reference was made in 1330 by an inspector of the imperial kitchen, Hu Shihui, who noted the dish as an imperial dish in Yinshang Zehngyao (The Proper and Essential Things for the Emperor's Food and Drink).  According to the Oxford Companion to Food (page 594), the dish "originally meant a Nanjiang duck, of small size and black feathers, not artificially fattened."

When the Ming Dynasty Yongle emperor moved the Chinese capital from Nanjiang to Peking (and later Beijing), the roasted duck dish followed.  It continued to appear on the menu of the Imperial Court, and, eventually made its way out of the palace and onto the streets during the Jiajing reign, which was from 1522 A.D. to 1566 A.D., when the first roasted duck restaurant -- known as the Old Bianyifang Restaurant -- opened in Peking.  The restaurant changed the method of preparing the duck.  Previously, the duck was hung from the ceiling and roasted over coals.  The Old Bianyifang restaurant heated the walls of its ovens burning sorghum stalks and then cooked the ducks using the radiant heat from the walls.  The result was a roasted duck with whose skin was "crisp to the touch and golden brown" while its flesh was "tender and tasty."

Peking Duck (picture from East County Zoo)
The Old Bianyifang method of preparing the duck is not the only one.  While there are many ways to prepare Peking Duck (or Beijing Kaoya as it is known in China), the Oxford Companion to Food notes (at page 594) there are several common features to the roasting of the duck.  The first feature is the duck itself.  It must be a Peking duck (which is a species of Mallard Duck), two months old and fed a special diet until it weighs about five to six pounds.  The second feature involves the preparation of the duck.  After the bird has been dispatched, air is pumped between the skin and the body so that the bird is inflated.  The  internal organs are removed, the bird is blanched in boiling water, and coated with maltrose, which helps to give the skin a darker color.  The third feature of the process involves plugging the lower orifice of the bird and filling the cavity with boiling water to about 80%.  After that, the bird is ready for roasting in a special, wood-burning oven.  The wood used to roast the duck would often be date, peach or pear wood.  

Roasting Duck (picture from Robb Report)
All of these "common" features illustrate the rather laborious process of preparing the duck for roasting.  Fortunately, I found a recipe that included a few shortcuts.  Rather than blanching the bird or filling its cavity with boiling water, the recipe calls for pouring the boiling water all over the bird, including its cavity.  Once the duck is rinsed with the boiling water, a glaze is prepared and brushed over the duck.  I likened it to painting the duck, applying the glaze to both the exterior and interior of the bird.   After the glaze dried, I continued to apply coats of the glaze until there was just a few tablespoons left.  The bird marinated overnight and, prior to roasting, a final coat of the glaze was applied and the rest was saved for basting during the roasting process.  The final result was a beautiful bird, pictured above.   

As for service, Peking Duck is usually accompanied by thin, crepe-like pancakes known as heye bing or Mandarin-style pancakes.  I searched for those pancakes at a local Asian store, but was unable to find them.  While I could have perhaps made the thin pancakes myself, I decided to use shallot pancakes.  The shallot pancakes are definitely thicker than the Mandarin-style pancakes.  This thickness actually worked better for me because it helped to hold the duck with the sauce, scallions and cucumbers.

Recipe from Ching-He Huang
Available at the Cooking Channel
Serves 4

Ingredients (for the duck):
1 whole duck (5 to 6 pounds)
Sea Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
6 tablespoons honey
4 tablespoons Chinese five-spice powder
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons brown sugar

Ingredients (for the sauce):
1 tablespoon corn starch
6 tablespoons hoisin sauce
6 tablespoons super fine sugar
2 tablespoons sesame oil
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
1 package Chinese/Mandarin-style pancakes
3 scallions, sliced into long strips for garnish
1 cucumber, cored and sliced into long thin strips, for garnish

1.  Prepare the duck.   Prick the duck all over with a small knife or fork.  Carefully pour hot water over the duck to rinse.  Discard the hot water.  Place the duck on a rack in a roasting pan and dry all over with salt and pepper and leave it in the roasting pan until ready to cook.  

2.  Continue preparing the duck.  In a small bowl, mix together the honey, 6 tablespoons water, five-spice, soy sauce and brown sugar.  Brush the duck all over, inside and out.  Let dry for about 10 minutes and then brush again.  Repeat this process until you have used all but 4 to 5 tablespoons of the glaze (reserve the remainder).  Ideally, let the glaze marinate on the duck overnight, leaving it uncovered in the fridge. 

3.  Roast the duck.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Place the duck in the oven and cook for 45 minutes. Flip the duck over, baste with the reserved glaze and cook until the skin is crisp and golden dark.  If it is getting too dark before half the cook time is up, turn your heat down and lower the rack in the oven.  When the duck is cooked,  remove from the oven and let rest while you make your sauce.  

4.  Prepare the sauce.  In a small bowl, mix the cornstarch with 1 tablespoon cold water and set aside.  Next, heat a pan or wok over medium heat and add the hoisin, sugar, sesame oil and soy sauce.  When the sauce starts to bubble slightly, add the cornstarch mixture and stir will to thicken.  Set aside and let it cool.  

5.  Finish the dish.  Carve and slice some duck.  Place a teaspoon of the sauce in the center of each pancake, add a couple slices of duck, garnish with scallions and cucumbers.  Serve immediately.

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In the end, I think that the preparation of the Peking Duck was a success.  I was actually surprised at how much fat I was able to render off of the bird during the cooking process.  The finished duck had a nice color and the meat was tender.   Now that I have cooked the bird, I can turn my attention to making the Mandarin-style pancakes.  That will have to await another post.  Until then ...


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