A duck dish to die for

By Pauline D Loh (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-01-09 09:55
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Like ducks to water, visitors to Nanjing search out restaurants near the city's famous Confucius Temple for one thing and one thing only - Nanjing Saltwater Duck. Pauline D Loh explores this pride of the South

Despite its rather plebeian name, Nanjing Saltwater Duck holds its own effortlessly in the Chinese epicurean stakes. This tender, succulent bird is the pride of the city, and its cooking process is even more complicated than the preparation of its famous northern cousin, the Peking Duck.

A duck dish to die for

Ducks have been favored for centuries by Chinese. Famous dishes include Nanjing Saltwater Duck and Peking Duck. Zhang Chunlei

It all starts with a stockpot. Nanjing chefs guard their master stocks with their lives, quite literally. Through wars and natural calamity, through changes of government and historical tremors, the precious pot is protected from the enemy without and the enemy within.

This is the white master stock passed down through generations, boiled and re-boiled as it captures the essence of a thousand ducks. This is the ambrosia that makes the Nanjing Saltwater Duck so rightly famous.

The first birds were reputedly slaughtered more than 1,000 years ago, when Nanjing was the "southern capital". Ingredients and processes were simpler then. But through the use of salt, a precious commodity, and spices brought back via the Silk Road, this delicate dish gained and maintained its popularity.

It was during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) that it became most popular. Eateries and teahouses sprang up around the vicinity of Nanjing's Confucius Temple, the site of the Imperial examinations. To whet and satiate the appetites of scholars and supporters, restaurants started specializing in this dish. To this day, many still do, although they now cater to mainly visitors and tourists.

The chefs who first cooked the duck were masters of flavor, scent and texture. Through a series of processes that involved macerating, blanching, cooling and then soaking, they created a bird that offers taut skin, with a thin layer of creamy fat that yields with a pleasant bite.

The duck meat is tender and redolent with the lingering musk of Sichuan peppercorns, licorice, star anise and cinnamon, evoking the fragrance of osmanthus flowers. This explains why the dish is also known by its nickname, guihua yazi, or Osmanthus Duck.

The starter stock is prepared with its own bundle of precious spices, carefully tied up in muslin, and brewed with the double alchemy of ginger and scallions.

The bird will be plunged into this briefly, and then allowed to slowly cook as meat and stock cool together, with the duck soaking up the flavors of the stock. In return, the duck will scent the stock with a meaty richness that will be transferred to the next bird cooked in the master stock.

Much time, patience and culinary devotion goes into the cooking of the perfect bird, but the result is a dish fit for the gods. It was certainly one fit for the emperors who demanded ducks as tribute from Nanjing.

This recipe I am sharing was a reward for an eight-hour interview conducted with an old-school Nanjing chef more than 20 years ago. The venerable chef has since passed on, but the recipe and the memory of his passion pay tribute to a Chinese culinary classic.

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