In many parts of the western world turkey is the king of the Christmas table. Often flayed into submission and overcooked into a dehydrated husk, the proud bird is usually reduced into nothing more than strips of protein to be doused with artificially sweetened cranberry jam and packaged gravy.
For Chinese New Year we’ll celebrate at Ponytail Journal with something more joyous – a crispy slice (or ten) of Peking Duck. This is a recipe that has been perfected over the last 700 years, and even though the methods are relatively straightforward, every master roaster has their own tricks to make the bird sing once again.
The spread of Peking duck began in the 15th century, when the frequent floods in the Yellow River created swathes of refugees, forcing them to move and bring their home cuisines to Beijing. The sudden conglomeration of migrants provoked fierce competition in the culinary arts, producing innovation and many satisfied bellies. It meant the creation of a myriad of flavours, with shops using honey, molasses, or plum sauce to sweeten roasts. The hung ovens used to cook duck were sometimes fueled with applewood charcoal or hardwood from peach trees, infusing the chosen ducks with a fragrant smoked aroma. Served in slices, the dish has traditionally been wrapped with the sweet and savory blend of plum sauce, julienned cucumber, and diced green onion in a thin wheat pancake.
Today, this delicious roast can be a pricey indulgence, often found in high-end hotel chains and specialty restaurants. At its spiritual home in Beijing, we love Duck de Chine at 1949 the Hidden City, Jing Yaa Tang at The Opposite House, and Made in China at the Grand Hyatt, where a whole duck will set you back around ¥200-250, or $29-36 USD. That’s already considered quite a luxurious meal by Beijing-standards, although it’s a huge bargain for anyone used to outrageous fine-dining prices overseas. Fortunately not everywhere in Beijing has gone all premium, and tourists seeking something more toned down can seek out Jingzun Peking Duck Restaurant and Deyuan Roast Duck, where the birds are served at less than ¥140, or $20 USD.
No matter where you are, Chinese chefs have usually brought some version of Peking Duck to most of the major cities in the world. Peking Duck is designed to be shared, and while it may not be as delightful as the genuine dish in Beijing, but we can guarantee you’ll enjoy the meal anyway if accompanied by good friends.
/ Written and shot by Anne Berry /