Peking Duck - gastronomic favourite of the Games

August 11th, 2008 - 3:35 pm ICT by IANS  

Beijing, Aug 11 (IANS) What waddles on two legs and is disappearing faster than they can be roasted? It is Beijing’s signature dish - the Peking Duck. The kitchen in the Olympic Village, which houses over 10,000 athletes from 208 national and regional Olympic committees, is preparing over 300 ducks daily, and they all are finished by 8 p.m., local caterers have been quoted as saying.

“You cannot come to Beijing and not have its eponymous dish,” said one British archer.

The ducks, delicately roasted for about hour on fruitwood ovens, are ceremonially sliced before each guest, wrapped in pancake, and its succulent, golden brown meat served in finger-licking brown or plum sauce with spring onion and cucumber.

There are any number of restaurants that claim to serve the Peking Duck, whose gastronomic history goes back 1,600 years, but the most well-established chain is Quanjude, which in Mandarin means the gathering of all virtues and which has been in business for 146 years.

Its main restaurant, for which there is often a waiting line of over an hour, with guests hanging around in opulent lounges before being ushered into the dining area, has been frequented by dignitaries from all over the world whose photographs adorn its reception area.

It has also featured in movies and served as the setting for TV soaps.

So popular is the dish and its folk culture status in Chinese society that one new rival chain, the Bianyifang, has even opened a Peking duck museum at one of its restaurants that narrates its history and culinary techniques handed down the ages by master chefs.

The Quanjude, which figured in the China Daily as one of the leading Chinese brands today along with Tsingtao beer, Lenovo computers and the Bank of China, has an interesting history. Its founder, Yang Quanren, made a living by selling ducks and chicken in the meat market before going on to have his own shop.

He changed the method of roasting from a closed-oven method to an open-oven method to simplify and expand production. And the rest was history. The number of ducks said to have been roasted at the Quanjude restaurants is said to number over 100 million.

And everyone who dines there is given a certificate with the number of the special duck that had been roasted for the guest.

Also on offer for local Chinese and the more adventurous non-Chinese diners are other parts of the duck’s anatomy like the head, heart, liver, kidney, feet and wings. The bones are also made into a milky white soup.

Last year Quanjude, which claims its existence since the Qing imperial dynasty, tried to modernise the method of roasting by introducing the electric oven on the plea that it was more eco-friendly. But there was such an outcry from traditionalists that the company hastily went back to the old method of roasting it in a six-foot high drum-shaped fruitwood oven that is said to be responsible for its unique taste.

The Chinese believe that duck meat is therapeutic, especially for those suffering from lung and respiratory ailments. Since the duck stays in water for hours, its meat does not produce body heat like chicken does and is seen as “balanced food”, the Chinese say.

Both the restaurant brands are now applying for preservation of their roasting method as international cultural heritage status.

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