Here begins a story of pure food. There will be no tales of missed flights, no failings to master kitchen techniques and no recollections of embarrassing incidents from childhood. No, I’ve not given up any feeble attempts to assimilate myself as a young Bourdain (or a less eloquent Jay Rayner for that matter), but in this instance any silly stories would detract from the majesty of the one dish at the heart of job 38.
Having anticipated a crowded and chaotic city, I was shocked to discover that Beijing felt more like a ghost town. I had arrived in Spring Festival and millions of the capital’s migrant work force had returned to their home towns. This goes someway to explaining Beijing’s vast range in regional Chinese cuisine with up to 8 million people moving to the city each bringing with them ingredients and recipes from back home. But I had three more weeks to explore outside the capital. I was in Beijing for two reasons: to hike to the Great Wall; and to learn the intricacies of the city’s most famous dish – Peking Duck.
Peking duck, or Beijing duck as it is now known, was first conceived in the Ming Dynasty, c. 1416 and later became a popular item on the imperial court menus. However, it wasn’t until the 18th century that the dish was codified in the format as we know it today; roast duck served with pancakes, sweet bean sauce, cucumber and spring onions. So popular was this combination that Peking duck went global and in many different guises such as that healthy looking wrap from Pret (which inevitably leaves you still hungry and snacking on banana bread) or, if you’re really unlucky, as a pizza topping conceived by a high street chain trying to differentiate themselves as nothing short of food fuckwits. But now in the dish’s hometown I was in search of the real deal, the traditional recipe that started it all. So it was a great pleasure to spend time at Horizon restaurant in the Kerry Hotel to cook one of the most authentic offerings in town.
With a dish of such simplicity only the finest duck will suffice. Sourced locally from Beijing Golden Star Farm the ducks are raised using ‘gavage’ methods and are left to roam free for 45 days before force-fed for their final 15-20 days. This gives the ducks a high level of rich yellow fat surrounding the body. The ‘foie gras’ debate is best saved for another time (especially as I hope to visit a foie farm towards the end of my trip) but I have no shame in admitting that when the ducks arrived at Horizon I found myself stroking their skin whispering how much I was going to enjoy roasting them.
Ducks delivered, next came the roasting perfected by chefs over 600 years. On arrival the ducks are air blasted to separate the fat from the skin and then dipped momentarily in boiling water which tightens the skin and starts the fat rendering process. The ducks are then left to dry for up to two days. They are then roasted at 250ºC for 70 minutes in a traditional wood oven fired with Jujube wood from the He Bei Province – the perfect wood to lend a slight smoke to the meat without overpowering the delicacies of flavour. It’s a nerve-wracking experience, hooking a duck in the fire and I miraculously avoided any disasters on this occasion.
The roast duck however only occupies one course of a banquet meal and so I also spent time in others sections such as soup, dim sum and claypot cooking – a style traditional to the Quang Dong province. Away from the restaurant open kitchen and into the depths of the hotel’s back areas there was a noticeable difference in atmosphere to my restaurant work to date. There lacked the camaraderie between chefs, that buzz in the air, and the excitement before service. I find it hard to explain the reasons why. Perhaps I was treated more like a guest than a member of the team. But maybe it was the mentality of a hotel restaurant. (Throughout my travels several chefs have bemoaned their time in hotel kitchens; the added rules and regulations, the difficult customer expectations, and the lack of autonomy that prohibits a truly creative environment. With more hotel and restaurant jobs planned in coming weeks I’ll likely discover more but I’d be interested if anyone reading this has any comments to add to the matter.)
By the end of my weeks at Horizon I had built up quite the appetite and I’d be damned if I left the kitchen without a generous helping of that duck. The duck arrived to my table dark amber in colour, rich and aromatic in smell. The server gracefully carved the duck like an artist, portioning out exactly 80 pieces of meat to savour. I delicately tapped my fork on the duck’s skin to see it crack much like a crème brûlée. Rendered fat oozed out from the skin, while underneath a thin slither of silky fat protected the juicy meat below. This was unlike any duck I had tasted before. It was so close to perfection it was a challenge to use any for a pancake. When I finally did the sweet and pungent bean sauce and crunch of the garnish justified why this was a combination hundreds of years in the making. Sure the Great Wall was impressive but if you really want a taste of history, look no further than that wooden over in Horizon restaurant. You’d been quackers not to.*
*I resisted the urge as long as I could and I can assure you that no ducks were harmed in the making of this pun. Feel free to share any more below.