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The Story Of The Peking

The roast duck starts, well, from the Peking duck itself. Had the emperors before the Yuan dynasty (1206 -1368 AD) not been such fans of hunting and discovered the snowy white duck in the wild, had they not gone on to domesticate this breed, the world would not have tasted the flavoursome poultry we now know as mallard.

The mallard, or Peking duck, is essential in making the world-famous roast. No other duck but this breed, raised on farms around Belting and deliberately fattened with a diet of grain for a few months, will do. The fatty layer under the skin leaves the flesh moist while making the skin crisp -the very thing that makes Peking duck so irresistible.

The roasting technique was created during the Nanbei dynasty (400 BC). Originally known as jiuya, it was a Hangzhou delicacy, loved by both the common folk and those in high society. In Yuanli, records tell of how the dish was brought to Dadu, the present Beijing, when the Ming Dynasty capital was shifted from Nanjing to Beijing. This move not only enlarged the fan base of the dish, but also elevated it to the imperial kitchens.

Emperor Qian Long and Empress Dowager were rumoured to have a taste for its succulent texture. It was during this period that the dish which originated from Hangzhou got its name 'Peking roast duck'. In a cyclical progression, the commoners dish that found its way to the Imperial Palace found its way back to the people again. There are two preparation methods: gua fu (roasting in the oven briefly and hung over fire) and men lu (roasting in the oven).

At Beijing restaurant Quan Ju De, where they serve what is probably the most famous Peking roast duck worldwide, the speciality dish is made using the former method. The ducks are carefully plucked and air is pumped between the skin and the body to inflate the bird. The duck is then blanched, washed with a strong maltose solution, sometimes infused with spices and left to dry.

When fined, the body is filled with boiling water and the duck is plugged from the bottom -this unique method allows the meat to stay moist even after roasting. Ducks that have been roasted for 40 minutes or so will be hung over a fire and swung through the flames: this is the step that gives the skin the delicious crispiness! The end product from this tedious cooking process is a plump roast duck with deep rose-coloured skin.

The appreciation of the dish starts even before it reaches the table-you can be sure of catching a whiff of that sweet smokey goodness from far away. Then comes the almost theatrical carving of the duck. The swift, graceful strokes of the knife wielded by an experienced server is a breathtaking performance.The proof, however, still lies in the eating. The beauty of Peking ducks, though doused in maltose and at times flavored with spices, lies in the fact that it retains the best of its natural flavors.


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