Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Peking Duck in Old Beijing

Beijing may be the capital of China, but it was founded by the Mongols under Kublai Khan. So it’s hardly surprising that the city’s signature dish is a marriage of foreign and native cuisine, in the same way that Beijing’s palaces and maze of antique lanes reflect a Chinese refinement overlaying four centuries of alien rule, which ended with the last of the emperors in 1911.

On the surface, Beijing is a surprisingly modern metropolis, a somewhat soulless place in which individuals are dwarfed by a grid of enormously wide boulevards lined with glassy office blocks. But a far more traditional side lingers away from the main thoroughfares: the Forbidden City’s mighty russet walls and endless puzzle of interlocking palaces, courtyards, and gardens, where the imperial families once lived among eunuchs and intrigue; the former homes of Manchu princes and officials, hidden among the intricate web of neighborhood alleys (hutong); and the peerless symmetry of the Temple of Heaven’s rotunda, where the emperors used to pray for good harvests. For their part, modern Beijingers are best observed still doing what they enjoy most, shopping in Left Studded with towers, the mighty Great Wall winds across China the stores or street markets and, especially, eating – in which case, you’ll want to join them in sampling the one dish intimately linked to this city: Peking duck.
Preparation of this classic dish begins with the plucked, cleaned duck – a straw is inserted into the neck and the skin is gently blown away from the body.
The ducks are then painted with malt extract and hung on a hook to wind-dry, then roasted in batches over a wood fire, the chefs shifting the birds constantly so that they color and cook evenly.
Eating Peking duck is a similarly staged process: a three-course study in taste and texture. First comes the skin, roasted to a translucent toffee color, crispy and succulent. The moist duck meat is then carved from the frame, to be seasoned with salty bean sauce and wrapped in elastic, paper-thin pancakes, with slivers of green onion and cucumber to add bite. Finally, a palate-cleansing bowl of velvety duck soup arrives, signaling the end of the meal.
Peking duck’s origins are obscure, but as roasting only crops up in Chinese cooking where there’s been outside influence, it’s possibly a distant echo of Mongolian barbecues, where guests would be invited to carve their own portions off whole roasted animals.
Only the Chinese taste for refinement could take such a crude cooking method and from it create a work of art.

Best Places to Eat Peking Duck


Quanjude has been serving up some of the tastiest roast duck in Beijing since first opening its doors during the 1860s. It was one of the capital’s first big restaurants to get back on its feet after China’s stagnation during the Cultural Revolution, and by the 1980s getting a table here was a mix of luck and hand-to-hand combat, with the restaurant bursting beyond capacity every night and diners being hauled out of their chairs by waiting customers the moment it looked as though they’d finished eating.
Nowadays things are far more relaxed, but make reservations or get here early if you don’t want a long stint in the lobby. The decor is restaurant red-and-gold, service is flawless and efficient, and the duck – skillfully carved for you at the table – is certainly worth waiting for. Duck is what everyone orders, but the rest of the menu of northern Chinese specialties is extensive, and visiting dignitaries and tour groups are served a multi-course banquet.
14 Qianmen Xi Lu, Beijing; open 10:30 AM–8 PM daily; +86 10 6304 8987

Shredded meat from the roasted duck is wrapped in a wheat-flour pancake with green onion and cucumber

Also in Beijing
Bianyifang (+86 10 6711 6465; moderate) can trace its history back to 1416, though the present business is contemporary with Quanjude. Unlike its rival, which cooks its birds over an open flame, Bianyifang slow-roasts its ducks in a closed oven which, according to partisans of this establishment, seals in a richer, juicier flavor. The restaurant lacks Quanjude’s splendor, but it is comfortable enough.
Delivering a crisper, leaner duck than the average calorie-packed offering, Da Dong (+86 10 8522 1234; expensive) is emerging as one of Beijing’s most talked-about contemporary restaurants. The menu is huge, the portions artistically small (except for the duck), and the cost somewhere in between.
Also in China
Hong Kong’s Dong Lai Shun at the Royal Garden Hotel, Kowloon (+852 2733 2020; expensive) is the local representative of a famous Beijing restaurant chain specializing in Mongolian hotpot – a do-it-yourself meal featuring finely sliced raw lamb, a pot of boiling stock, and a host of vegetables and dipping sauces. Their Peking duck is excellent too, cooked to crisp-skinned perfection and served as the traditional three-course meal.
Around the World
Outside China, you’ll want to head to Australia’s finest Chinese restaurant, the Flower Drum in Melbourne (+61 3 9662 3655; expensive). This bills itself as a Cantonese (southern Chinese) institution, but you wouldn’t know it from their immaculate Peking duck – though don’t expect to be able to fill up on the rather dainty portions.
What Else to Eat
Another classic northern Chinese dish, now enjoyed countrywide, jiaozi are China’s answer to ravioli. Nobody knows where they originated, but they’ve been around for a long time – a mummified bowlful was found at a Tang dynasty tomb on China’s fabled Silk Road. Wheat dough wrappers stuffed with meat and cabbage and folded into a crescent shape, jiaozi are boiled, steamed, or fried before being tumbled into a bowl and served with a dipping sauce of your choice – try a mix of soy sauce, black vinegar, and crushed garlic. Jiaozi are not delicate: you order them by weight and northerners boast of how many they can put away at a single sitting. But as a hearty fuel, they are the ideal defense against Beijing’s ferociously icy winters.
A Day in Beijing
Beijing’s recent modernization hasn’t quite managed to obliterate over 700 years of history – and the famous Great Wall is just an hour or so from the center of the city.
MORNING : Catch a van to the Great Wall at Mutianyu and spend a couple of hours walking between watchtowers along this incredible structure, then head back to Beijing for a late lunch. Alternatively, start the day at the Forbidden City, the mighty imperial palace complex from which generations of emperors ruled China.
AFTERNOON : Walk off lunch at the Temple of Heaven Park, admiring the splendid exterior of the temple itself, before heading to the hutongs for a stroll through the streets of old Beijing.
EVENING : Grab a snack at Dong’anmen Night Market – you might want to avoid the scorpion kebabs – then decide whether to rub elbows with locals at one of the Sanlitun district’s many bars, or settle in for a striking, if incomprehensible, performance of Peking Opera.
Getting to Beijing China
Beijing is connected to China and the rest of the world by air and rail. Use a combination of metro train, bus, and taxi to negotiate the city’s vast, gridlike street plan. Where to stay in Beijing China
Beijing Downtown Backpackers (inexpensive) has clean, central rooms. +86 10 8400 2429
Bamboo Garden Hotel (moderate), down an old hutong alley, is full of character with a splendid landscaped garden.
Haoyuan (moderate) is a traditionally furnished courtyard house.
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