So, Peking Duck. Up until about 5 days ago, my only reaction to Peking Duck was “mmm, sounds exotic, must be delicious!”. In other words, I knew zip. Nada. I presumed it involved…a duck, and after that… *shrug*.

So I did what I always do when I don’t know anything about a given food: I google it, and, I call my mom and/or sister, and ask them. Both of my trusty sources yielded great information!

What I learned online:

Peking Duck, or Peking Roast Duck is a famous duck dish from Beijing that has been prepared since the imperial era, and is now considered one of China’s national foods.

The dish is prized for the thin, crispy skin, with authentic versions of the dish serving mostly the skin and little meat, sliced in front of the diners by the cook. Ducks bred specially for the dish are slaughtered after 65 days and seasoned before being roasted in a closed or hung oven. The meat is often eaten with pancakes, spring onions, and hoisin sauce or sweet bean sauce.

Thank you, wikipedia. That all seemed easy enough. But then you read the second link. And the third. Then you start watching Youtube. And a rather startling fact emerged…

Peking Duck is prepared from the Pekin Duck. Newborn ducks are raised in a free range environment for the first 45 days of their lives, and force fed 4 times a day for the next 15–20 days, resulting in ducks that weigh 11-15 Lbs. Fattened ducks are slaughtered, feathered, eviscerated and rinsed thoroughly with water. Air is pumped under the skin through the neck cavity to separate the skin from the fat. The duck is then soaked in boiling water for a short while before it is hung up to dry. While it is hung, the duck is glazed with a layer of maltose syrup, and the innards are rinsed once more with water. Having been left to stand for 24 hours, the duck is roasted in an oven until it turns shiny brown.

Did you catch it?

it didn’t immediately grab me… “air is pumped under the skin”. The first time I read this recipe, my brain didn’t really process what this meant. But it slowly dawned… they want me to cook with a bicycle pump. The more I looked into it, the more squeemish I got about the idea of inflating a duck. Then I saw this video, and after watching I knew that this cook wasn’t going to be making homemade peking duck anytime soon. I mean, give the duck a little dignity, will you!?

Luckily, whole Peking Ducks can be ordered as takeaways. I walked down to chinatown yesteday and bought a fat looking specimen hanging in the window of one cafe for $20. I think that might be highway robbery, but hey, that’s the cost of duck for the inflating-adverse! The ducks can be reheated at home in the oven – 300 °F for 20 minute, and then at 325 °F for another 10 minutes. We’ll get back to this duck in a minute…

What I learned from my family:

On a call with my mom about Peking Duck, she mentioned that my grandmother, Florence, made Peking Duck for her family. Not impressed? Let me tell you more: In about 1955, my grandmother was the mother of 5ish (I say “ish” as there were seven kids in the family, but I’m not sure they had all come along yet, by the mid-50’s), and along with my grandfather (who was a butcher) had a family farm in rural Saskatchewan. My grandmother says she had a Time-Life “Illustrated Foods of the World” cookbook (she still has it!) and “when things were quiet in the winter” [are things EVER quiet for a mother of many and a farm wife!?] my grandma would make recipes out of this cookbook. She told me that in 1955 she had decided to raise 1000 ducks, and at least one of them ended up on my family’s table. She also reports that she made baked alaska! 🙂 I love my grandma.

Ok, back to today’s meal. I told myself that I would atone for not roasting a duck by making the rest of the dish from scratch – the hoisin sauce and the moo shu panckaes. After a bit more research, I learned that “only god makes hoisin sauce”. There are a few recipes that you can find, but they involve some pretty extreme substitutions (read: bastardizations) like peanut butter instead of black bean paste. That’s just not cricket! So I shelled out the $2.49 in chinatown for a bottle of hoisin when I picked up the duck.

So that leaves me with the moo shu pancakes. These pancakes I think are a triumph of simplicity – only a handful of ingredients: flour, water, salt and sesame oil. By the way, these would also be great with mexican food, if you subbed in a vegetable oil.

Moo Shu Pancakes

1 1/2 cups flour
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup boiling water
2 tablespoons cold water
2 tablespoons sesame oil
Flour for rolling
In a bowl, stir together flour, pinch of salt, and boiling water. Add cold water, stir until dough forms. Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth, about 10 minutes. Cover and let rest for 30 minutes.

Divide dough in half, cut each half into 5 pieces and roll each piece into a small ball.

On a lightly floured surface using a rolling pin, roll each ball into a 3-inch pancake. Brush 5 of the pancakes with sesame oil, top each with another pancake. Roll each pancake into an 8- inch pancake.

Heat a dry heavy skillet. Cook each pancake, without browning, on both sides until blistered with several air pockets. Peel apart, and keep warm while you make the remainder of the pancakes.

Once the pancakes are done, Peking Duck is really very simple to put together. I reheated the duck as described above, chopped some green onion, put out the hoisin (and a plum sauce that the grocer recommended) , and folded the pancakes on a platter. Time to eat! I’m happy to say that the result was happy house guests, and some muttered expletives, which I always take as a good sign at my dinner table.