© 2010 Steven Wong

Kao ya, oh yeah!

I know the last post I wrote regarding food was interesting at best, and downright gross at worst. Well, dear reader, have no fear because we are going to embark upon a journey to the other end of the food spectrum. That’s right, we’re going classy, cuz that’s the way I roll. Sometimes.

If your palette runs a little less adventurous than others, then you probably haven’t sampled in what many Chinese consider to be delicacies: shark’s fin, abalone, chicken feet, jellyfish, beef tendon… you get the idea. However, chances are you may have eaten, or at least seen, Beijing’s eponymous local dish: kao ya, or roast duck. You might know it as Peking duck, after the capital’s old spelling.

If you’re thinking of your local Chinatown and the roast ducks that are hanging in the storefront window… think again. That’s Cantonese-style roast duck, which tastes different to and is eaten differently from Beijing-style roast duck. Even Cantonese speakers call it Beijing duck, to distinguish between the two.

Beijing duck is cooked to order, features much crispier skin, and is usually eaten wrapped in a thin pancake with spring onions and hoisin sauce. Most decent restaurants here in Beijing will serve kao ya, but there are a few which are really quite famous for specializing in the dish.

The granddaddy of all kao ya restaurants is Quanjude, which brought this former imperial dish to the masses starting in 1864. Its reputation was cemented through loyal patronage by the Chinese government, and has even hosted state dinners with foreign VIPs. The picture below illustrates the Quanjude style of arranging the slices of meat.

All that said, I felt a little let down by Quanjude. It’s not that it was bad… it just wasn’t mindblowingly good, which is what I was expecting. It was nevertheless a good meal, and really, when you’re eating Beijing duck with friends, that’s never a bad thing, right?

More recently, I went to Duck de Chine, which has made a name for itself by presenting Beijing duck in a new manner. I think they called it, “a French take on a Chinese classic”, though maybe that’s what I inferred from the name. In any case, the restaurant was very modern and chic, and the service was quite attentive.

The soup made from the rest of the duck we didn’t eat was excellent, and the waitress prepared for each of us an interesting combination of hoisin sauce, sesame sauce and roasted garlic. But the name of the game is the duck. And again, I was a little disappointed by the fare.

I’m not sure if it’s because I have ridiculous expectations, but if you’re paying over twice as much for one duck as you could get in a local restaurant, shouldn’t the duck be at least noticeably better? Methinks yes.

Now, lest you think that Beijing is a culinary black hole, let me relieve your burden by saying that there are many very good restaurants and even a few excellent ones. So in my opinion, if you want Beijing duck, if you want the best kao ya this city, nay, this country has to offer, then you have to go to Da Dong.

The duck, both times i went, was superb. Very light and cripsy skin, with only a hint of the fattiness you’d expect. Eight different condiments to go with the duck, including sugar, which tastes much nicer than you’d think. You’ve even got a very light and tasty pastry puff to try, which I actually prefer to the pancake. Throw in the excellent non-duck dishes and you’ve got yourself a very classy meal (exhibit A: the main picture at the top is from Da Dong).

What could possibly make such an experience better? Go to the Da Dong branch in Dongsishitiao. The two-storey restaurant there matches Duck de Chine for chicness, but you have the option to choose your own duck as they’re roasting. That means you get to go into the kitchen and check out the massive ovens where they hang the ducks to cook. Awesome.

Tune in again next time where I’ll likely be posting from Hong Kong about Chinese New Year! Gong Xi Fa Cai! Gung Hey Fat Choy!