Glutton's guide to Peking duck, part 1 / by Thomas O'Malley

Beautifully bronzed duck, a steamer of papery pancakes, julienned veggies and sticky soybean sauce. Yep, it’s Beijing’s signature quacker. Tens of thousands of ducks are roasted, carved and gobbled up daily in the city’s kaoya dian. But where to eat ducks fit for an emperor?  Where to find the best Peking duck in Beijing? Read this guide and find out.

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Peking duck is no flash in the pan. The first recorded mention of roast fowl in China dates back to the Northern and Southern Dynasties around 500 AD. In the 14th century it was an Imperial dish, reserved for royalty. Like many such delicacies, it’s likely the recipe was later smuggled out of the Forbidden City by cooks or servants, finding its way into well-heeled residences and restaurants.

The history of Peking duck restaurants in the capital goes hand-in-hand with the city’s laozihao, which means something like ‘time-honored brands’. Quanjude and Bianyifang are the two most famous brands in duck roasting, both of which you’ll learn more about later on.

The ducks that grace the tables of China’s capital derive from the white-downed ‘Pekin’ breed. Bred and raised on small-scale farms in Beijing’s northern suburbs, they are blessed with an instinctive gluttony, and reach slaughter weight – usually 2.5kg – after just 40 days. In the late 1800s, nine of these were exported from China to Long Island, New York. Today 95% of ducks consumed in the US are direct descendents.

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A bit different from the ‘crispy duck’ eaten in Cantonese-style restaurants around the globe, proper Peking duck should have skin that’s both brittle and yielding. Getting there is a meticulous and time-consuming process, which you’ll learn more about on the tour. And when it comes to eating, aesthetics are paramount. As a rule, ducks are carved tableside in view of diners. It’s an expected piece of food theatre, part of the rhyme and ritual of eating a dish dating back to the Ming Dynasty.

So grab your chopsticks and get set to gobble your way through the history and evolution of China’s best-loved dish, from the earliest laozihao that are still going strong to today’s maverick chefs, who are reimagining Beijing’s signature dish for increasingly cosmopolitan diners.

Know Before You Eat: Some restaurants (like Quanjude) allow you to order ducks by half, but generally you’ll get the whole bird, which will feed at least two people. All restaurants listed in this guide have menus with dish photographs and English translations, so language won’t be a problem.

Bianyifang, Beijing's "Oldest" Eatery

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77 Xianyukou, Qianmen East Street, Chongwen District, Beijing. +86 10 6713 2536. 11am -9pm. 

The city’s oldest surviving restaurant chain, Bianyifang Kaoyadian was established way back in 1416 during the reign of Ming emperor Yongle. Bianyifang, which means ‘convenient to all’, is said to have started life as a takeaway outlet on Mishi Hutong (Rice Market Alley) about a mile east of this location.

A branch of Bianyifang has stood here on Xianyukou (Fresh Fish Crossroads) since 1855 … until the bulldozers arrived for the 2008 Olympics and razed what was one of the most vibrant – albeit rundown - commercial districts in the city. In typical Chinese fashion, the original maze of alleys and eateries has since been rebuilt from the ground-up, re-opening in spring 2011 as a tourist food street complete with piped music and Disney-style facades. Bianyifang is back on its old perch (pun intended) – bigger and shinier than ever.

It’s truly a beast of a place, a mock Qing frontage leading to 7000 square meters of restaurant supposedly able to serve 1000 covers at a time. Inside, old and new collide. In the grand lobby a gold plaque reads simply ‘1416’, whilst off to the side a flashy holographic display recounts the history of Bianyifang and roast duck.

Suggested dish: 1416 Peking Roast Duck, 140 RMB 

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Bianyifang developed what’s called the ‘closed-oven’ technique for roasting duck, whereas almost all other restaurants now roast over an open flame, pioneered by Quanjude (the next eatery in the guide). In practice, Bianyifang’s archaic method seems to result in the duck skin being a little softer and the meat juicier and ever so slightly pink. You also get a higher ratio of meat to skin – good for carnivores.

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Bianyifang also predates the pancake rolling method of eating Peking duck. Traditionalists stuff the juicy duck meat inside a small sesame wheat bun called a shaobing. A few slices of succulent duck sandwiched in the doughy bread is a delicious little mouthful, though rather filling and admittedly less popular than the pancake method, so the menu does give the option of both types of accompaniments.

Insider Tip: Glutton for mutton

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A large Muslim Chinese minority (the Huimin) has lived in the Qianmen area of Beijing for 500 years, and their halal habits have fueled the rise of lamb or mutton as just about Beijing’s best loved meat. To give your table an authentic mutton touch, order this dish of premium lamb breast from the great plains of Inner Mongolia, slow-roasted and served in strips topped with crispy skin.

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The serving method is particularly novel: the cooked lamb breast is heaped to one side of a tray used for tea ceremonies, surrounded by petite steamed breads (called mantou) and a spicy, savory dipping sauce. On the other side are little cups and a teapot filled with tart berry juice, which you should drink after eating to cut through the oil-rich lamb.

Quanjude, Good Enough for Nixon

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14 Qianmen West Avenue, Chongwen District, Beijing. +86 10 6302 3062. 11am-2pm, 4.30-8.30pm.

What we think of as Peking duck today can mostly be traced back to Quanjude. Founded back in 1864 by a poultry dealer named Yang Quanren, the restaurant pioneered the idea of cooking ducks by hanging them in open ovens over the wood of fruit trees to impart a perfume into the skin, and eating the flesh wrapped in thin wheat pancakes (called heye bing).

The ducks here do tend to be slightly more clumsily presented than the very finest in town, which irks when you’re already paying a tourist premium (198-239 RMB). Mind you, I’ve never had a bad one, and over the years Quanjude’s distinguished birds have been eaten by everyone from Fidel Castro to Richard Nixon.

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These days, coach-loads of domestic and foreign tourists flock to what has been named one of the 500 best brands in China. Inside, you can count on a bright, brash ambience and brisk service - but worth it if only for the numbered certificate of authenticity you receive with each duck. As a kitsch souvenir, it’s up there with an “I climbed the Great Wall” T-shirt.

The giant branch at Hepingmen, opened in 1979, is the undisputed flagship – seven floors, 41 dining rooms and endless acres of Quanjude’s trademark communist-chic red and gold décor. They don’t often do small (or subtle) in China. Best of all, its walking distance from Tiananmen Square, so you might like to take in the flag lowering ceremony in the square at sunset than take a stroll southwest to the restaurant for dinner.

Suggested dish: Duck heart dumplings, 36 RMB

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Quanjude lays claim to the idea of using every part of the bird to create a multi-course, ritualized feast. This ‘duck banquet’, mostly served in private rooms to VIP guests, is possibly a little extreme for the uninitiated, comprising duck feet with mustard, spicy gizzards, intestines done myriad ways and even the drained fat emulsified into a soup broth.

But if you order the duck heart dumplings (jiaozi) off the regular menu, you won’t be disappointed, much less grossed-out. Ground duck hearts are mixed with garlic, soy and spices, wrapped by hand into little doughy crescents and boiled in a large cauldron of water for about ten minutes. Served with dipping vinegar, the mild, meaty filling and pillowy skins are the food equivalent of a nice warm hug.

Insider Tip: How to Make Peking Duck

Want to learn the secrets of one of the world’s greatest (and most fussy) dishes? OK, here goes. First … the slaughterhouse. Ducks should be EXACTLY uniform in size and weight when they arrive, and after being carefully plucked and eviscerated, a bamboo rod is inserted into the ribcage to keep its shape.

In the kitchen, compressed air is pumped into the duck between the skin and the fat layer, inflating it like a medieval football. This will help keep the skin crisp in the oven, and enable the fat to render more efficiently.

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The ballooned ducks are then doused in boiling water, the skin visibly tightening, followed by a basting of mai ya tang - molasses syrup that will help impart the characteristic bronze luster to the skin.

After two days of drying (again, for the crispy skin), hot, date-infused liquid is poured into the duck cavity, which is bunged up. This is the really clever part. Full of fruity juice, the meat will steam gently from the inside as the flames in the oven lick and crackle the skin.

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40 to 55 minutes later (after a bit of basting in the fire) the ducks are removed from the oven using a long pole called a yachang. De-bunged and drained, they’re ready for carving. Bon apetit!

Read part 2 for more restaurants, dishes and tips!