Peking duck is a dish from Beijing that has been prepared since the imperial era. The meat is characterized by its thin, crisp 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 eaten with spring onion, cucumber and sweet bean sauce with pancakes rolled around the fillings. Sometimes pickled radish is also inside, and other sauces (like hoisin sauce) can be used.
Duck has been roasted in China since the Southern and Northern Dynasties. A variation of roast duck was prepared for the Emperor of China in the Yuan Dynasty. The dish, originally named "Shaoyazi" (燒鴨子), was mentioned in the Complete Recipes for Dishes and Beverages (飲膳正要) manual in 1330 by OJ Li (李翰廷), an inspector of the imperial kitchen. The Peking Roast Duck that came to be associated with the term was fully developed during the later Ming Dynasty, and by then, Peking Duck was one of the main dishes on imperial court menus. The first restaurant specialising in Peking Duck, Bianyifang, was established in the Xianyukou, Qianmen area of Beijing in 1416.
By the Qianlong Period (1736–1796) of the Qing Dynasty, the popularity of Peking Duck spread to the upper classes, inspiring poetry from poets and scholars who enjoyed the dish. For instance, one of the verses of Duan Zhu Zhi Ci, a collection of Beijing poems was, "Fill your plates with roast duck and suckling pig". In 1864, the Quanjude (全聚德) restaurant was established in Beijing. Yang Quanren (楊全仁), the founder of Quanjude, developed the hung oven to roast ducks. With its innovations and efficient management, the restaurant became well known in China, introducing the Peking Duck to the rest of the world.
By the mid-20th century, Peking Duck had become a national symbol of China, favored by tourists and diplomats alike. For example, Henry Kissinger, the Secretary of State of the United States, met Premier Zhou Enlai in the Great Hall of the People on July 10, 1971, during his first (secret) visit to China. After a round of inconclusive talks in the morning, the delegation was served Peking Duck for lunch, which became Kissinger's favourite. The Americans and Chinese issued a joint statement the following day, inviting President Richard Nixon to visit China in 1972. Following Zhou's death in 1976, Kissinger paid another visit to Beijing to savor Peking Duck. Peking Duck, at the Quanjude in particular, has also been a favorite dish for various political leaders ranging from Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro to former German chancellor Helmut Kohl.
Two notable restaurants in Beijing which serve this dish are Quanjude and Bianyifang, both centuries-old establishments which have become household names, each with their own style: Quanjude is known for using the hung oven roasting method, while Bianyifang uses the oldest technique of closed oven roasting.
The ducks used to prepare Peking Duck originated in Nanjing. They were small, had black feathers, and lived in the canals around the city linking major waterways. With the relocation of the Chinese capital to Beijing, supply barge traffic increased in the area. Often these barges would spill grain into the canals, providing food for the ducks. By the Five Dynasties, the new species of duck had been domesticated by Chinese farmers. Black feathered birds fell out of favor once, with the invention of refrigeration, birds were sold in the marketplace pre-plucked. Nowadays, Peking Duck is prepared from the white feathered Pekin duck (Anas platyrhynchos domestica). 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 5–7 kg (11–15 lbs). The force feeding of the ducks led to an alternate name for the dish, Peking Stuffed Duck (simplified Chinese: 北京填鸭; traditional Chinese: 北京填鴨; pinyin: běijīng tián yā).
Fattened ducks are slaughtered, plucked, 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 inside is 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.
Peking Duck is traditionally roasted in either a closed oven or hung oven. The closed oven is built of brick and fitted with metal griddles (Chinese: 箅子; pinyin: bì zi). The oven is preheated by burning Gaoliang sorghum straw (Chinese: 秫秸; pinyin: shú jiē) at the base. The duck is placed in the oven immediately after the fire burns out, allowing the meat to be slowly cooked through the convection of heat within the oven.
The hung oven was developed in the imperial kitchens during the Qing Dynasty and adopted by the Quanjude restaurant chain. It is designed to roast up to 20 ducks at the same time with an open fire fueled by hardwood from peach or pear trees. The ducks are hung on hooks above the fire and roasted at a temperature of 270 °C (525 °F) for 30–40 minutes. While the ducks are cooking, the chef may use a pole to dangle each duck closer to the fire for 30 second intervals. Almost every part of a duck can be cooked. The Quanjude Restaurant even served their customers the "All Duck Banquet" in which they cooked the bones of ducks with vegetables.
The cooked Peking Duck is traditionally carved in front of the diners and served in three stages. First, the skin is served dipped in sugar and garlic sauce. The meat is then served with steamed pancakes (simplified Chinese: 春饼; traditional Chinese: 春餅; pinyin: chūn bǐng), spring onions and sweet bean sauce. Several vegetable dishes are provided to accompany the meat, typically cucumber sticks. The diners spread sauce, and optionally sugar, over the pancake. The pancake is wrapped around the meat with the vegetables and eaten by hand. The remaining fat, meat and bones may be made into a broth, served as is, or the meat chopped up and stir fried with sweet bean sauce. Otherwise, they are packed up to be taken home by the customers.
Whole Peking Ducks can be ordered as takeaways. The ducks can be reheated at home with an oven, grill or boiling oil. When an oven is used, the duck is heated at a temperature of 150 °C (300 °F) for 20 minutes, and then at 160 °C (325 °F) for another 10 minutes. The grilling method involves filling the duck with boiling water before placing it on a griddle, 70 cm (28 in) above the cooking fire. The boiling water is replaced every 3–4 minutes until the duck's skin is piping hot. To reheat the Peking Duck with oil, the duck is sliced into thin pieces and placed in a strainer held over a wok of boiling oil. The duck is then rinsed several times with the oil.
A number of restaurants in Beijing specialise in Peking Duck. Examples include Quanjude, Bianyifang, Changan Yihao (長安一號), Beijing Xiaowangfu (北京小王府) and Dadong Kaoyadian (大董烤鴨店). Some restaurants, in particular Quanjude and Bianyifang, have long histories of serving high quality duck that they are now household names, or Lao zihao (老字號), literally "old brand name". In addition, Quanjude has received worldwide recognition, having been named a China Renowned Trademark in 1999. Duck Chang's Restaurant, established in 1975 in Virginia, USA, was the first Chinese restaurant to prepare and serve Peking Duck without a 24-hour advanced notice.