Aliza Wong is an assistant professor of history at Texas Tech University. She lives in Lubbock, Texas, with her son and husband, but hails from Portland, Oregon.

Beijing duck

‘What is the essence of the duck?’

By
May 9, 2008

My son, Luca, was excited to be in Beijing. Because as exciting as the walls and temples were, as thrilling as the acrobats and opera promised to be, Beijing meant one very important thing on his Chinese agenda: duck. And I had promised him that the duck in Beijing was the very best duck in the world.

Crisp, fat-glistening skin wrapped in paper-thin pancakes, moistened with the sweet tang and salty slurp of hoisin sauce, cut by the green-grass crunch of slivered green onion. And then later, succulent meat, sweating juice from the roasting temperatures, glistening with the fragrant natural oils of the bird, dark, sugar savoriness punctuated with a deep chew.

We love duck. We were in Beijing. It was like all our worlds had collided.

Ducks at Li Qun waiting to be cooked.

After much research and consultation (asking the extended Wong family their advice about the best duck restaurants is an exercise in long-winded philosophical debate — “What is a duck? What is the essence of the duck?”), I decided that we would go eat “authentic” Peking duck in the hutongs at the very famous restaurant Li Qun.

For some reason, travel to foreign locations always involves the word “authentic,” and I wonder what that word means. Do tourists to the United States go looking for an “authentic” hamburger the way we go searching for “authentic” pizza margherita?

Li Qun, by all accounts, was the best place to go for an “authentic” Peking-duck experience. And it was an experience. A whole experience. First, we had to explain to our taxi driver that we needed to be left in a specific area of Beijing where several rickshaw bicycles awaited dinner guests. Then, we needed to communicate to the rickshaw drivers that we — my husband, my son, and I — wanted to be carried in only one rickshaw.

He looked at us aghast — he was a slight slip of man and we gave him an exhausting workout. (Feeling guilty that we were going to consume more food after our combined weights had caused such perspiration, we gave him a very big tip.) We wound through the dark brick buildings, turning left, right, and round and round in the ancient labyrinth until we arrived at a small gray edifice, doors open, windows lit, voices welcoming — Chinese chefs and waitstaff shouting, foods, times, tables, international languages, laughing abbreviated by chewing. We walked into the heady perfume of roast duck: smoke, oil, flesh.

Li Qun is a humble place. It has none of the flash we associate with Chinatowns, none of the dragons, the gold, the red, the lanterns. It is Chinese because it is Chinese, not because we imagine it to be Chinese. It had brick walls, concrete floors, tables that wobbled, and chairs that tipped. Tiny rooms with two or three tables at the most sometimes rocked with animated discussion and then alternated with bouts of long silence as people ate their stomachs full of duck.

We began with some appetizers: duck livers, vegetables. And then the accompaniments arrived. First there was the sauce, then the green onions, then the cucumbers, then the salt, then the pancakes. And finally, accompanied by a chef, the glistening, golden, gleaming duck. He walked her down the restaurant in all her glory. People at other tables turned and looked, pointed, smiled. He presented her to us, primped and primed, and then motioned that he would do his work at the other table.

We all turned to watch as he carved the bird, slicing thin strips of crisp, malleable skin, golden and bronzed. Then he sliced into the flesh, beads of sap at the incision, moistening the meat as he divided up the bird, breast from thigh from leg. He delivered us two plates, one with the skin, the second with the meat, and then walked back towards the kitchen, tossing the skeletal remains into a bin filled with other bones that would later be made into a rich, pungent broth.

Luca waited patiently enough as I put a pancake on my plate. I dipped the tiny spoon into the chocolate-brown redness of the hoisin and scooped up just enough to spread a thin layer on the pancake. I laid a few slivers of green onion on top of the sauce, and then I chose some pieces of skin, some meat with my chopsticks. “More,” Luca said.

I picked up another piece of skin. “More,” Luca said. I picked up another piece of skin. “More,” Luca said. He giggled.

I rolled the pancake together, closing off an end, and I handed it to him. He bit into it. Chewed thoughtfully. “Mmmmm.” He leaned back into his chair, duck pancake in hand, satisfied.

Peking duck
Peking duck in Beijing.

As I prepared another pancake for myself, laughing at my husband as his weirdly shaped duck package dripped meat and skin and juice and onion — aesthetics are not of primary concern when it comes to food pleasure for him — I pondered on the Wong discussion of the philosophical meanings of the duck.

Here is my philosophy of the duck. When I went away to college in Massachusetts, I was the first of my family to go. And though my family has always been very loving and supportive, we are not demonstrative types. We did not do the touchy-feely, the warm and fuzzy. And so when I left for school, phone calls home were the first regular “I love you’s” I heard. I always knew. There was no need to say it. Until I left, and then there was.

But the saying of “I love you” was only secondary to the more important demonstration of love and affection in my family: food. Planning my trips home to Portland never really included extensive discussions of who I wanted to see or where I wanted to go. Instead, planning my trips home always began and ended with the all-important question from my father: “What do you want to eat?” And then the list would begin. My father is an amazing chef. And the list was long. And it always included duck, my favorite.

My father makes the most delicious duck you have ever tasted. Sometimes he makes pancakes, sometimes he splits the skin from the meat, sometimes he leaves the bones in. It doesn’t matter. His duck makes me salivate as I write this now. It is mythical. It is legendary in Wong circles. (And there are a lot of us out there.) Going home means duck. And home means an amazing display of love on and around the dinner table.

I finished making my first pancake, perfect size, perfect shape. Seated at a table with two of the most important people in my life, my husband and my son, surrounded by the charming simplicity of the hutong, in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, I bit into my pancake. And though I had traveled thousands of miles to take this bite of “authentic” Peking duck, I found that I had taken that journey only to be transported home, longing for a morsel of my father’s cooking. And that is how in faraway Beijing I somehow found my way home.

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1. by Matthew Amster-Burton on May 9, 2008 at 8:38 PM PDT

I am so hungry now.

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