FOOD: Eating Peking Duck Down to the Bones
Did you ever finish a meal, then found yourself running your fingers around the rim of the plate to pick up the last remaining “juices” of your meal? This was my experience after Scott and I dined on Peking Duck.
Liu Ye, our Hotel concierge suggested the best restaurant for Peking Duck, and it was a worth while 20 minute walk away in the cold. Located in a glitzy mall on the fifth floor, this hyper-stylized restaurant was much like those I frequent in NYC. The three or four women hostesses gave us the once over, then politely escorted us into the dining area to a table in view of the raised gazebos glass shaped kitchen. Inside, about 10 chefs were busily prepping the ducks, and more leathery Peking ducks were hanging from overhead hooks. I counted four wooden stoves. Other utensils included long carving knives, and sharpening stones, in addition to the hanging poles. At one point I got closer to the glass kitchen to take photos of the cooking technique used. I noticed that each chef wore a surgical mask as they worked. I later learned that this was a common practice throughout China of chefs who worked closely with food preparation. The setting looked like a stage for some ritualistic practice.
We could not stop looking. One chef took a duck out of the oven, then broke off its beak, then sanded the skin to remove any excess hair and ashes. Our curiosity prompted us to take turns grilling the waitress about the preparation.
As the waitress handed me the menu, I marveled over the exquisite design. The tall menu was constructed with a Japanese bookbinding technique, which made the menu function more like a book telling the a story of the food. The inside pages were set with a beautiful classical style typeface, and the photographs were of colorful dishes, and included a brief story about the ingredients used. At one point our waitress noticed that I was taking photos of the menu and waved her hand for me to stop, but not before displaying an annoyed facial expression.
Our waitress made several menu suggestions. We ordered bamboo shoots, and soup. (My chicken soup was known for it’s medicinal qualities for women’s health.) Scott was asked if he wanted to pick our duck. Of course he replied, “Yes,” (Sha Sha in Mandarin). The waitress then introduced him to the chef, after he selected a duck and the waitress interpreted the preparation process.
When my soup arrived, I peered into the small ceramic bowl with a squeamish look on my face. Based on my facial expression, Scott and the waitress knew I was not loving my chicken soup. I tasted the clear broth, which had sweet and salty flavor. The soup was a mixture of chicken, flower petals, herbs and ginkgo plus a few other things I could never make out.
The stir-fry braised fresh bamboo shoots, topped with chopped mushrooms in a brown sauce, and served on a slender rectangular plate, with thinly sliced shoots that cascaded from a short piece of bamboo. A set of long slender black chop sticks were laid across the top of each of serving plate.
Our chef arrived with our Peking Duck then meticulously sliced off thin slithers of raw sugar-coated skin, then placed the skin on small white oval-shaped dish, then our waitress served us. The waitress also brought out an assortment of pickled and salty condiments, including long sliced scallions, chopped onions, and small bits of pickles. and a few other things I could never make out. Surprisingly the skin was slightly crunchy, with both a sugary and salty taste.
Then the waitress uncovered a small circular covered black dish with crepe-thin white pancakes, and small round sesame buns that were hollow in the middle. She demonstrated how to use the chop sticks to add bits of condiment in the middle, then topped with small pieces of duck that could be folded-up like a little pouch. We both agreed that the duck was divine and he thought it was the best he had ever tasted, and I seconded.
The pacing of the meal was such that we were not overwhelmed with the number of dishes. After we polished off the duck, I’m a slower eater than Scott.
We soon learned there was more to the process then just eating the duck meat. The chef scooped out the brains and gently placed them on tiny plates. I passed on that offer, but Scott was eager for the experience.
Just when you think you’re finished theirs one more ritual.
Then the chef disappeared with the carcass. Our waitress returned with a blended drink made from the duck carcass. Despite feeling apprehensive at the thought of drinking bones, I must admit to that I liked the flavor.
Luckily we photographed each dish before we devoured it, If you look at the photos you can see how divine the meal was.