I’ve eaten quite a bit of Peking duck in my life. I’ve felt disappointed by duck experiences in cities other than San Francisco to date. In Boston, they were subpar. Here in New York, it took nearly ten years of living here before I was able to find a place that I could reliably go to and enjoy (and stomach the cost for, since here, it seems like you need to empty out your life savings just to have some version of a Peking duck… that isn’t even that great in the end). In Hong Kong, we had a delicious Peking duck experience, but for me, it was a bit tainted because the thin pancakes that were served seemed underdone and as though there was still flour on them… Were we being served raw pancakes…?
So when we were planning our trip to Beijing, I knew that we had to optimize our Peking duck experience, so I did pretty extensive research before I landed on one specific place that I knew we absolutely had to go to: Siji Minfu, which just happens to be a few blocks away from our hotel. They don’t seem to take reservations anymore, so after our half-day trip to the Great Wall, I asked our driver if he could drop us off there at around 1:30, which is considered “off-peak” hours for the place. I’d previously read that since they stopped taking reservations, diners, both local and tourist, can wait up to two hours for a table, and neither of us was interested in waiting that long for anything.
We were in luck: the hostess told us that only eight parties were ahead of us, and it would be anywhere from a 15-20-minute wait. I was already salivating, thinking about how glorious this meal could be that was just half an hour away.
Oftentimes, the uninitiated ask, what makes Peking duck different from the average roast duck? Isn’t duck just duck? Well, no, it isn’t, and it’s an extremely laborious and time intensive process that no average home cook with an average kitchen could replicate. Peking duck, from a historical standpoint, has existed for several hundred years, but it wasn’t until the mid 1800s when someone decided to open a restaurant here in Beijing that publicized this duck making process to the everyday Beijinger: chefs would hang the ducks upright in an oven heated with fruitwood fire. This hanging technique allows for more space for the duck’s endless rendered fat to properly drain, which results in a crispier, drier skin: the pride and joy of Peking duck. In a good Peking duck, the skin and the meat is fully and completely separated so that the skin can render out fat from both the top and the bottom, and also bastes the meat as it cooks.
We waited a long time for our duck after ordering.. it felt like at least an hour. It was so long that Chris started getting cranky as he saw other tables being served their ducks and having them butchered for them alongside their tables. Once the duck is taken out of the oven, it is hung and rested, then the chef wipes off any excess fat from the skin, and puts the duck on a serving tray and gives it to one of a handful of butchers who will present this glory to you, the diner. You have the option of ordering freshly made, paper-thin pancakes for wrapping, as well as little condiment trays that are filled with crushed garlic, various pickled vegetables, batons of thinly sliced cucumber and scallion, and the most savory and complex hoisin sauce I’d ever tasted in my life. It was very obviously fermented and made of beans… When I think about it now, maybe it wasn’t even “hoisin sauce” as I know it here. But regardless, it was the most delicious sauce I’ve ever had served with Peking duck. Chris was in love with this.
The skill with which the butcher exercised as he cut through this duck was so impressive; each cut was quick and swift, and not a single piece of skin or meat was wasted or left on the bone, unlike in the States, when I oftentimes am lamenting how much meat is left on the bone and sent back to the kitchen after slicing. I couldn’t believe how quickly he cut up this entire duck for us. When it arrived, beautifully laid out and presented on three different serving platters on our table, it was still hot and steamy. The duck was finally ready for us… even though we had been ready for the duck ages ago.
One bite of the skin and the meat, and I was in heaven: the meat, despite being fatty duck meat, was not even in the least bit fatty or greasy. It had the perfect soft texture and taste, and actually felt lean! And the skin is a completely different story: it was crispy without being crunchy, if that makes any sense. It literally just shattered in my mouth. And when I left it to linger on my tongue, it would dissolve within seconds, pretty much melting away. The flavor was so sweet, rich, savory, smoky, and deep; there’s truly no other duck experience I’ve had that is even a fraction of what this was to me.