If you wander around Gerrard Street in the heart of London's Chinatown, you may see plucked duck carcasses hanging up on big hooks in the windows of the many restaurants. These ducks are slowly being transformed into the incredible Peking duck1.
This is one China's most famous dishes, traditionally prepared only for banquets and very special occasions. Depending upon the conditions, preparing the duck could take days as it was first air-dried, then marinated then dried again, before finally being roasted to produce an intensely flavoured dish.
Serving the duck comes in three stages, usually referred to as 'duck three times'. Firstly the highly prized cripsy skin - which would have turned a deep burnished brown colour - would be served very thinly sliced with small pancakes and Hoi-sin sauce. The meat from the duck would then be stir fried with beansprouts to form the main course of the meal, and finally the bones would be boiled up to form the basis of a delicately flavoured soup.
Now, all this is rather too much for most people to try at home. So if you want the full experience you are better off leaving it to the professionals in your local Chinese restaurant.
However, here we have a more manageable variant on the classic, which should give you most of the experience without too much of the hassle.
To serve 4 as a starter
- 2 Large duck breasts still with their skin
- 4 Pieces of star anise
- 1tsp Cloves
- 1tsp Sichuan peppercorns
- 2 Cinnamon sticks
- 3 Spring onions
- 25g root ginger
- 1tsp Salt
- 4tbsp Rice wine
- 2tbsp Light soy sauce
- 25g Plain flour
- Vegetable oil, preferably groundnut oil, for deep frying
- 180g Plain flour
- 150ml Hot water
- 2tbsp Sesame oil
- Hoi-sin sauce
- 1/4 cucumber
- 4 Spring onions
Firstly, our duck.
Rub the salt into the duck breasts. Place them into a bowl with the star anise, sliced ginger, Sichuan peppercorns, finely chopped spring onions and the broken-up cinnamon sticks. Now add the rice wine and mix it around a bit. Leave the whole lot in a refrigerator overnight to marinade.
The next day, take the duck breasts and place them with the marinade spices on a plate and into a bamboo steamer. Put the steamer into a wok, along with plenty of boiling water and cover. Steam the breasts over a high heat for 2 to 3 hours, top up the steamer with more water as and when necessary.
Once cooked, remove the duck breasts from the steamer, gently wipe away the marinade spice and pat them dry with some kitchen paper. Now leave the breasts to dry out and go cold for at least 5 hours. This bit is very important, because if you don't have cold dry duck skin when you start to fry it, your duck will not go crispy!
Now that you have a bit of time on your hands, this is a good moment to make the pancakes.
Sieve the flour into a bowl and then slowly add the hot water, stirring the mixture all the time until it is fully combined.
Turn out the dough onto a board and knead for 8 to 10 minutes until the dough takes on a smooth consistency. Return the dough to the bowl, cover it with a damp cloth and leave it to rest.
After half an hour or so remove the dough from the bowl again and knead it for a further 5 minutes. Then divide the dough into 12 equal pieces and roll each of them in your hands to make a little ball.
Take two balls of dough. Place one on a board, dip the second ball half way into sesame oil and then place it on top of the first ball, oiled side down. Now with a rolling pin roll out the two balls simultaneously to make a 'double' pancake about 15cm across.
To cook the pancakes, heat a dry wok on a gentle flame, and place one of the 'double' pancakes into it. Allow it to cook for 1 to 2 minutes on each side. When cooked they should be dry to the touch, but not browned.
Remove the 'double' pancake from the wok and split into two. Repeat until all of the dough balls have been cooked. Keep the pancakes sealed in an airtight box in the fridge if you are not using them immediately - they have a tendency to dry out if left exposed to the air.
Now it is time to return to the duck.
Take the duck breasts and brush them all over with the light soy sauce. Then roll them in the flour, shaking off any excess.
Fill the wok with oil to a depth of half an inch, and heat until it is as hot as possible. Groundnut oil is preferable here, as it has a particularly high smoke point. This means that the oil won't burn and ruin the flavour of the duck, and there is also a lower risk of it bursting into flames!
Cook the duck breasts one at a time in the hot wok for a total of five minutes. Start the cooking with the skin side down in the oil and turn over half way through. Once cooked, place the breast on some kitchen paper to drain off any excess oil and allow to cool.
To serve, first shred up the meat and the skin. Then place a teaspoon of Hoi-sin sauce on to each pancake, and add some of the shredded duck, plus cucumber and spring onion that has been finely cut into matchstick-sized pieces. Then roll each pancake up into a little parcel and eat.
If you aren't that great at forward planning, you don't have to marinade the duck overnight. Marinading time can be cut down, with three hours marinading as the bare minimum.
The pancakes are a fiddle to make, but you can buy them fresh from good supermarkets or Chinese delicatessens.
Hoi-sin sauce can be substituted with plum sauce for a sweeter-tasting dish.
An alternative to the pancakes is to use the tops of Chinese leaf. If you do, they should be blanched for a few seconds in boiling water to wilt them slightly, so that they can be rolled up to make the parcels.