I’ve had Peking duck in various countries and on different continents, but this was my first time tasting it in its homeland. I did a painstaking amount of research before heading to Beijing in deciding which restaurant to go to. I only had one shot at it, and I wanted to make sure that my money was well spent.
Based on some magazines like Timeout Beijing, some tips from readers of “The Beijinger”, and ratings on Tripadvisor I was unsure whether to go to ultra-modern Da Dong, or the more classic Siji Minfu.
In the end I went to Da Dong, because it was basically just across the street from my hotel and I went there to check it out – and I liked what I saw.
How you make THE Peking Duck…
Peking Duck appeared at early emperors’ feasts but it wasn’t introduced to the public until 1864, when Yang Quanren opened Quanjude restaurant where the technique of hanging the ducks upright in an oven heated with fruitwood fire was introduced. Prior to that, ducks were roasted lying down in a closed oven. The hanging technique leaves more space for rendering fat to drain, resulting in crisper, drier skin.
That oven is not the only elaborate part of the process, which starts with a 100-day-old Pekinese duck that has been force-fed for the last several days of its life to plump up—at least, that’s how the most highly regarded do it. Air is then forced into the neck cavity of the slaughtered, plucked duck, inflating its skin to completely separate the skin from the meat underneath, which allows for the skin to render out fat from both sides, basting the meat as it cooks.
But we’re not anywhere near the cooking phase yet. Next, the guts of the duck are removed. With European butchery practices, the guts are removed through the business-end of the digestive system. With a Peking duck the guts are removed through a tiny incision under one of the wings, because presentation of the ready bird is of great importance.
Next, a couple branches of wheat or sorghum are inserted into the chest cavity to keep the skin stretched taut and away from the meat as it roasts. The prepared duck is then doused with boiling water (this helps tighten the skin up, as well as causing it to, paradoxically, dry faster), given a coating of maltose syrup—this is what gives it its rich, lacquered color—and left to hang and dry for at least 24 hours.
Finally, the duck is hung with its neck wrapped around a metal hook, boiling water is poured into its cavity, and it is placed inside a tall oven heated by fruitwoods (Da Dong claims to use a combination of apple, pear, and jujube wood). The water inside slowly boils away, steaming the meat, while the smoky fire renders the skin.
What emerges from the oven is one of the pinnacles of culinary greatness.
When ordering the duck itself, you’ll have the option to order a whole duck or a half duck, with the whole duck available at two different levels of quality, which relates to the duck’s feeding—the pricier duck will have been raised and force-fed a bit longer, rendering it more succulent and fatty. I (and you should too) paid the higher cost for the better duck, and one should definitely order a whole duck, which will guarantee that it’s being pulled fresh and hot out of the oven for you.
This restaurant is not your modest side-alley family joint. It has three outlets in Beijing and several times has been named “Best Restaurant in China”. They do a lot of other dishes also. On the menu I saw a tasting menu at 9,800 RMB (2,450 Leva) for 10 people. Luckily we were only 3. They also have an impressive wine list (lots of Bordeaux and even some of my favourites like Chateau Talbot). Don’t ask for the price. But they also have 6 kinds of beer where the most expensive one (a Chinese micro-brew) was 40 RMB (10 Leva).
They also have a bar for people who prefer a more relaxed seating – like Japanese Izakaya – which I prefer when I am on my own.
The restaurant was on the 5th floor of probably the most expensive shopping mall in Beijing (separate elevator, no shops) – without any signs outside that could attract clients. A very upmarket place – in a dimension that you will hardly find in the US.
My “superior” duck cost 290 RMB (Renminbi) – about 72 Leva – the whole animal. Not a lot of money if you consider how many times you eat such a bird.
I am still thinking of visiting Siji Minfu also before I leave .