The Chinese have appreciated the finer qualities of roast duck for millennia, and in that time, they’ve refined their cooking techniques into a virtual art form. The first mention of roast duck (烤鸭, kǎoyā) dates back to the Northern and Southern dynasties (420–589 AD). By the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368), the tawny bird was gracing the tables of mandarins and emperors in then-capital Nanjing, and imperial kitchen inspector Hu Sihui mentioned it in The Complete Recipes for Dishes and Beverages, published in 1330, along with a record of how the duck was cooked.
In the 1400s, when the capital of the Ming Dynasty moved to Beijing, roast duck migrated north along with many of its chefs. Over the centuries, the specialty evolved to become China’s national dish, Peking Duck. Another version also became popular down south in Guangdong (historically known as Canton), alongside roast goose and barbecued pork.
While all regional varieties of Chinese roast duck differ slightly, they are, essentially, birds of a feather. Cantonese-style ducks are often served with a sweet-and-sour honey sauce or a light soy sauce, while the Peking variety, made from the Pekin breed (the highly recognizable white ducks with yellow-orange bills), is dipped in fermented bean sauce (甜面酱, tiánmiànjiàng) and wrapped up in a wheat-flour pancake with julienned cucumber and white scallions. As the precursor to Peking duck, Nanjing-style roast duck, named for the city just west of Shanghai, includes the same sides as its northern brethren, but substitutes a characteristically southern sweet sauce (甜酱, tiánjiàng) for the bean paste.
To make Chinese-style roast duck, the cook separates the skin and fat by pumping air between them. Then the bird is marinated from the inside out with a combination of ingredients specific to the restaurant (this is not usually a dish for home cooks), and the skin is air-dried before the whole thing is roasted. As the bird roasts, the skin shrinks and forms perfectly discrete layers of skin, fat and meat for easy slicing and optimum flavor.
Peking Duck: Da Dong
Since September, mouths in Shanghai have been watering over the opening of one of Beijing’s most venerated Peking Duck emporiums. Because of its imperial reputation, Peking Duck is rarely served outside of fancy restaurants. Da Dong has revolutionized the recipe, adding 20 minutes of cooking time over burning fruitwood to drip off extra fat, thus avoiding the oiliness that can be the downfall of many a duck. Sure, at 268 RMB per bird it’s not cheap, but it’s got the crispiest skin in town, and the tableside carving and brick kilns roasting ducks by the dozen in the middle of the dining room make a visit here worth it just for the photo op. The duck is served with a plethora of accompaniments; trained waiters will advise you to dip the skin in sugar, fold the gamey meat in a pancake with bean paste and julienned cucumber, radish and the white sections of scallions, and tuck into hollow buns. At the end of the meal, you can either take your carcass home for some bone picking and stock making, or have them bring you a rich duck broth. Waits are already hours long for this restaurant, but there’s free-flowing boxed wine to keep the queues happy.
Booking ahead is essential at this Shanghai institution, and the hostess will most likely ask if you would like to reserve a duck when you call. The answer is yes. As soon as you arrive, the waitress will deliver your duck. It’s carved behind the scenes, so you don’t get the same action shots as at Da Dong, but the “original recipe” duck is steeped in history. Their thick sweet sauce clings to the slices of meat and skin. Also on the menu are irresistible lion’s head meatballs (狮子头, shīzitóu), made from fatty pork and flecked with the meat and sweet roe of hairy crab in a golden sauce.
Cantonese-Style: Lao Guangdong
Head to the eastern edge of Shouning Lu after 7:30 p.m. and you’ll be greeted by a flock of drying duck carcasses hanging from the eaves of Lao Guangdong. This hole in the wall shines brightly with fluorescent lighting and makeshift folding doors separate the kitchen from the grimy dining room, but it’s not the ambiance you’ve come for, it’s the duck. They sell more than 200 per day, and although the skin isn’t as crispy (or made-to-order) as that of the higher-end establishments, half a bird will only run you 25 RMB. Lao Guangdong’s special trick is pouring a ginger- and green onion-infused mixture of soy sauce and vinegar into the cavity of the duck via a tiny slit underneath one wing. The ducks are hung outside until the skin is dry (which varies by the season and humidity), then roasted for 45 minutes. Served alongside a nondescript porcelain bowl of the lightest soy sauce we’ve ever tasted, the meat drips with delicious juices, and we’re always tempted to lick our plates clean.