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Ancient and Delicious: A Primer on Peking Duck

If you were anywhere near a television over the holiday break, there’s a good chance you caught A Christmas Story. It’s a classic holiday film and one of a surprising few to reference Peking Duck.

In fairness, the scene at the end of the movie has not aged well. In fact, it’s quite racist. But it does put the age-old Chinese dish on something of a pedestal. It’s a dish that’s so hearty and comforting that it’s become not just a holiday classic, but a delicious and unique option all winter long.

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Peking Duck has had other moments in the spotlight. Henry Kissinger famously enjoyed it on any number of State Department visits to China during the 60s and 70s. Quanjude, the Chinese eatery that dates back to 1864, has prized the dish for generations, treating guests in Beijing and beyond to its age-old recipe. The restaurant’s founder is credited for creating the hung oven used to roast the ducks.

Like China itself, the dish is ancient. It’s been mentioned as far back as the 14th century. Traditionally, it’s made from a certain type of duck, in a certain type of way. Similar to foie gras, there’s some decidedly less humane force-feeding involved — at least there was in the past — but the resulting animal is plump and perfect for cooking. 

The ducks of old originated in Nanjing, the capital of the nation’s eastern Jiangsu province. There, they gathered around the city’s many canals. Today, farms all over the world raise ducks (and like much of farming and ranching, the scenario is more humane). The more common version these days, at least since they came stateside in the late 19th century, is the Pekin duck, a similar species. They make up almost the entirety of all ducks raised and used in the culinary realm in this country. 

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Traditional Peking Duck — the dish — is sliced before diners at the table. The bronze sheen the bird wears is due to a glaze of soy sauce and spices, and a drying period allows the skin to become wonderfully crisp. It’s often served with garlic sauce for dipping, steamed pancakes to make rolls, and some refreshing vegetables.

Chef Allen Routt of revered Willamette Valley wine country restaurant The Painted Lady likes to work with duck. Starting in 2020, he’ll be getting his meat from nearby Drake Farms. He does a riff on duck at the restaurant as well as a whole-bird version at home. “So many duck preparations and accompaniments are rooted in fall and winter flavors and tones,” Routt says.

At his restaurant, he’s gotten into brining duck breast overnight in fruity tea. Then, it’s seasoned with salt, pink peppercorn, and dried tea leaves before being smoked until it’s 120 degrees internally. After it rests, it’s put fat side down in a pan on a low flame. It’s basted throughout, with the fat rendering and ultimately removed. “The thing about duck breast is it’s a little chewy when it’s rare and a little chalky when it’s medium,” he says. “So you want to be really gentle.”

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Lately, he’s been doing a Peking-style duck with his youngest son at home. He brines the bird for a night or two, lets it dry, then smokes it until it’s rare around the joints (at 200 degrees F). He then ups the heat to 350 degrees F and hits the skin with some honey and soy marinade until things are crisp and golden. He likes to serve it with some warm fruit, apple sauce, root veggies, nuts, or chestnuts.

Chef Gregory Gourdet of Departure in Portland (and of Top Chef fame) also does a much-anticipated version of Peking Duck each year. His is cured in a thawing mix of 7-spice, salt, and sugar. The duck is hung for a full day to dry the skin and intensify flavors. It’s then roasted and flash-fried, then served alongside Mandarin pancakes and sides like cucumbers and pickled kumquats. The leftover duck is even used to make a finishing course of gamey fried rice. Chinese tradition does something similar, typically converting the leftovers into a broth.

As we hunger for hearty items this winter, duck and a classic Peking-style recipe are worth considering. The flavors will impress but so too will the presentation.

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