Crispy duck roasted in fragrant wood-fired ovens is a triumph of culinary simplicity, and one of China's greatest dishes.
The presence of a large, yellow-billed, concrete duck in the street indicates the location of a branch of the ubiquitous Quanjude, the best-known name in Beijing roast duck. Founded in 1864, the original restaurant was one of very few to survive the suppression of private enterprise during the first few decades of communist rule. Now franchised city-wide, Quanjude's greeters beckon to tourists, who can also choose from a wealth of other options.
Available throughout the city as everything from a polystyrene-boxed, backstreet takeout to part of a multiple-course gourmet banquet, Beijing duck is still usually roasted using the Quanjude method, the birds hung in ovens that are fired with stumps of apple, jujube (a small date), pear and persimmon trees.
First, water is injected between the duck's skin and flesh, then the duck is cooked at a high temperature to crisp the skin and bring the meat to a tender softness. The sliced bird is served with dishes of shredded green onion, strips of cucumber, plum sauce and a pile of small pancakes.
Diners smear the pancake with a little sauce and place a few greens near one edge, then pile pieces of duck on top before rolling the pancake up. The meal is usually followed by duck soup and can be accompanied by dishes involving almost every other part of the duck, including roasted hearts, webs (feet) in mustard sauce and fried tongues.
When to go: Spring or fall â€” winters are frigid and summers hot, humid and often wet. September and October are best, followed by April and early May, although spring sometimes brings sandstorms.
Planning: Practice your chopstick technique before leaving home as few restaurants outside Westernized hotels provide knives and forks. Have your hotel write down the name of your destination in Chinese characters so you can show it to taxi drivers. Take the restaurant's telephone number so the taxi driver can use his cell phone to call for further directions if necessary.
Websites: www.quanjude.com.cn, www.meiguoxing.com, www,thebeijingguide.com
The new low-fat duck at either branch of Da Dong Kaoya is currently thought the capital's best, especially when accompanied by some of the chef-owner's imaginative new-style Chinese dishes. Choose your selections from a bilingual picture menu.
Expat lovers of Beijing hutong (alley) atmosphere take their duck in the battered traditional courtyard residence that has become the Li Qun Kaoyadian, a duck restaurant lost in the rapidly disappearing labyrinth southeast of the ancient Qian Men towers. The route to the tiny dining rooms is via the kitchen, where you may see your duck in preparation.