The creation of the traditional Peking duck dish is something that requires a careful knowledge of an age-old skill. Prepared the same way since the Imperial era, this Chinese dish is an important cultural cornerstone.
The crisp skin combined with the correct fat to meat ratio is something that can’t be replicated utilizing shortcuts of any kind. Far too many people have been fed an inferior product, and there’s a very telling difference between commercially prepared Peking duck and the authentically prepared dish.
An Overview of the Traditional Method
The traditional method of Peking duck preparation is as old as the Northern and Southern dynasties. The chef would choose a White Beijing duck, a breed heavily domesticated in China, and roast the duck to slow perfection. They did this using either a convection method, or a second method that suspended the duck above the flame.
The second method has been continued with a great deal of success throughout traditional Chinese restaurants. The preparation of the traditional Peking duck involves the following:
- Choosing and plucking an appropriate White Beijing duck
- Air is pushed between its skin and flesh, and an incision is made to remove its entrails
- The bird is cleaned and skewered with a wooden rod which allows it to be suspended above the flame
- The duck is sometimes soaked in boiling water to tighten skin and then filled with water and sewn shut once again
- After being thoroughly hung and dried the duck’s skin will be brushed or marinated using sugar or other traditional agents
- The last step involves the suspension of the duck in a large oven at a temperature of around 500F for between 30-40 minutes
The duck will be deemed ready when its skin has a beautiful reddish color and has the crisp texture that can only be achieved via traditional cooking methods. In restaurants that continue to embrace the old ways, the chef will bring the duck to the table and slice it into more than 100 thin and succulent sections.
Why is the Traditional Method Preferred Over Modern Alternatives?
An article by Veronica Lin highlights some of the problems with cutting corners and utilizing cheaper and faster electric ovens. In Lin’s interview with chef Lu Xiaofei, she uncovers the advantages that cooking in the traditional large fireclay oven provides over modern electric means.
Lu notes the chef’s ability to carefully monitor the cooking duck and to make immediate changes when necessary. This close attention to detail combined with the original fruit flavors infused with the woods creates a finished product unique to this timeless method.
How Far Chinese Chefs in California are Willing to Go to Preserve Tradition
The practice of preparing and serving traditional Peking duck is so sacred to the Chinese culture that local California chefs and activists lobbied to have health code exceptions made in their favor. These exceptions allow the duck to be hung in the windows of traditional Chinese establishments while being dried according to ancient methods of preparation.
Since the exception was made for Peking duck in the 1980s , chefs have continued to embrace and practice cooking methods that keep a cultural tradition alive and well for future generations.