First time on this blog? Beijing Traffic Lesson: Left Turn is probably a good place to start.

Friday, August 10, 2007


(another Google image - not my actual meal)

Might be better known to some as 'Peking Duck,' but 'Beijing Roast Duck' is the full translation of the Chinese name. Needless to say, it's a bit of a specialty of the city, and Beijing Roast Duck restaurants abound.

I usually use 'breaking culinary news' to announce something upsetting or unusual, so this time I thought I'd give equal billing to what was an excellent meal.

Last week I mentioned to some friends that I hadn't yet had the dish, which is practically a crime for anyone who has spent more then 12 hours in the city. Neither of them had either, so we made plans with a couple of longer-term Beijing residents to go out for dinner tonight.

The restaurant itself, Li Qun, seems fairly authentic. It's an old, old courtyard house in a pretty battered looking hutong that must be a couple hundred years of age. From the piles of new bricks, the neighborhood looks like it may be in line for a renovation, but it certainly is REAL Beijing, from the tall grasses growing out of the roofs of the houses down to the kids playing in the street and the residents gathered in small clusters sitting on the sidewalks.

On the other hand, the restaurant is probably only 4-5 blocks southeast of Tienanmen Square, and I think it's become one of those 'authentic' places that gets 'discovered' and then fills up with 'tourists' as the 'prices' go through the 'roof.' This impression was borne out by the review my coworkers were reading during the hour cab ride to get there through rush hour - the phrase I recognized was 'laowai hen dwah hen dwah' - many, many white people.

There certainly were a lot of tourists, but hey, can't blame them. The ambiance was appropriately shabby (real Chinese restaurants don't spend much on atmosphere), and the kitchen, visible as we walked in, was doubtless set up to make one dish over and over and make it well.

I don't know if I ever had Peking Duck back home, but if I did, it certainly wasn't like this. It takes an hour to make (although here I'm sure they just keep pumping them out) and comes out whole, glazed to the point where it glows a radioactive orange and glistens like lacquer. For the five of us, we ordered two. The chef brought them out on a dented aluminum tray, showed it to us, then WHACK! Off with their heads. (I couldn't help but think of Daffy Duck saying "You realize, of course, that this means war!")

The chef then deftly cut the breast meat into thin slices maybe an inch square, making sure each piece had a bit of the glazed skin, which is the prize of the meal. Only the breast was served - the rest of the bird was whisked away.

Plates full of meat were put on the table along with a sweet, strong sauce, green onions cut into strips, small sliced cucumbers, a bowl of raw sugar and stacks of paper-thin pastry sheets maybe six inches across, like small thin tortillas. To eat it, you take a pastry, put a piece of duck dipped in sauce on it, add other toppings, and wrap it up like a tiny burrito. It was delicious. The sugar was surprisingly good, too - just a pinch really brightened up the flavor.

Also at the table was steamed broccoli (not normally my favorite, but I enjoyed it), scallops served on fried taro strips, and some excellent fois gras. I suppose the last makes sense - if there's one thing the place probably has a surplus of, it's duck's liver. I ate more than I should have, but hey, it's not like I eat it every day.

So I was enjoying the meal and thinking, "Hey, this is pretty darn good! And it's an authentic meal where I'm not picking out bones or worrying about what it is or anything!"

And then the remains of the ducks we had just eaten came back out of the kitchen, like duck zombies.

Imagine taking a whole duck, stuffing it full of firecrackers, dunking it in a deep-fat fryer and then exploding it. That's what the bowls set in front of us looked like. There were random bones, necks and blasted pieces of meat sticking out of it every which way. It actually smelled pretty good, and I was able to find a pebble of meat that wasn't seared to a bone and tried it - like all fried food, it was pretty tasty. But I've been here too long to have to prove myself, so I pronounced myself full and let it pass.

I was actually amused by this (if you haven't noticed by now, I'm easily amused.) Serving the meal this way is like them saying "And for you, monsieur, we serve ONLY the very FINEST parts of the duck. Oh, and then we serve you the rest of the duck."

There were plenty of leftovers from the Bowls 'o Duck Bits, which were unceremoniously dumped into a clear plastic bag for us to take home. I passed.

But at least I got to eat the Beijing specialty and have a last Friday night meal with my friends. Good times!