American expats in China, far from home and faced with limited supplies of turkey, have been known to celebrate with Peking duck. Here, duck dinners are the next closest thing to a home-cooked Thanksgiving meal. This was my second Thanksgiving in Beijing, and my second with Peking duck. Really, what is the difference between a big beautiful turkey that spends 4 hours in a home oven, and a big beautiful duck that spends 30 minutes in a brick restaurant oven? (Other than a lot of work for someone else?)
I try to limit my Peking duck intake to when friends and family visit, but Thanksgiving brings out my love of laboriously-prepared birds. When Foodbuzz put out a call for another 24, 24, 24 event, I knew I wanted pay homage to what has become a new Thanksgiving tradition in China. Last year Jacob and I ate at the unspectacular Bianyifang Roast Duck Restaurant, but this year we invited 3 other friends out to Da Dong, one of the best duck restaurants in town.
(Peking duck and condiments in a sesame puff; Duck bone soup)
The Nanxincang branch of Da Dong has an open duck kitchen right next to the lobby. (Peking duck primer: Ever wonder why the ducks have such crispy skin? A day before cooking, chefs blow into the skin area to separate it from the meat, creating a puffed-up shell. They then hang the ducks to dry overnight, sometimes in front of a fan.) During the busy times at Da Dong you can watch the chefs rotating the ducks inside the three brick ovens, and about 10 to 15 other chefs are lined up ready to escort a finished duck to the dining room. I don't know how long chefs train to slice duck with such speed and precision, but a duck would usually be fully sliced and neatly plated in five minutes. (See more photos of the carving.)
That night we were able to get both sesame puffs and thin pancakes to fill with sliced duck and condiments. There are few gastronomical pleasures (at least in Beijing), better than a bite of both dark meat and skin dipped in some hoisin sauce and granulated sugar. The one gripe I have with the condiments is that Da Dong charges an extra 8 rmb per person, when almost every other duck restaurant in town gives the condiments for free.
(Stir-fried duck in a lettuce cup and crispy "nest"; Shredded duck wings in Sichuan pepper oil)
No respectable duck restaurant would offer guests only sliced dark meat. You also get a savory soup made of duck bones (or a doggie bag of remainders for broth-making at home.) Like home cooks using every part of the turkey in creative ways after Thanksgiving, Beijing chefs are no less inventive with the duck. Our cold dish of shredded duck wings and cucumber dipped in Sichuan pepper oil was particularly juicy. And I couldn't resist ordering stir-fried duck wrapped in lettuce and a crispy "nest"; you scrunch up the "nest" with your hands before shoving the whole thing in your mouth.
(Peking duck and condiments in a pancake, pre-wrapping; Hot and sour Mandarin fish soup)
Of course, we needed to balance out the duck consumption with seafood and vegetables. My favorite dish of the night was a hot and sour Mandarin fish soup, brought out in a metal hot pot over a burner. It wasn't very evocative of Thanksgiving, but still soul-warming and a great combo of savory and vinegary flavors.
(Dividing the Mandarin fish and soup; Goose liver fried rice and millet with seared eel)
And of course, no Chinese Thanksgiving meal would be complete without fried rice, a staple of my childhood Turkey Days. Back then, it was vegetables and maybe cha siu fried rice. On Thursday, it was goose liver (regular, not foie). Heart health be damned. The goose liver rice was certainly delicious and befitting the over-indulgence theme. The other selection of millet with seared eel was a little dry and not as good.
(Winter squash in passion fruit juice; Sweet potato balls; Braised eggplant in soy sauce)
Like all of Da Dong's dishes, our seasonal vegetables we ordered came creatively plated. (What a departure from most Chinese establishments!) Our winter squash, shredded and enhanced with passion fruit juice, came as little balls. As did our sweet potatos with candied tangerine peels, though their taste was much blander. I couldn't help but love our braised eggplant in soy sauce, for both the simple rich flavor and the pearl onion adornment.
(Persimmon sorbet with almonds and light coconut sauce)
Da Dong may overcharge with condiments, a mandatory tip (not customary in China), and pricing fish entrees by weight instead of a set amount, but it gets credit for providing free dessert. Given a choice of three, I passed up the sweet congee and sesame porridge for a persimmon sorbet in a watered-down coconut syrup. Granted, it's an ultra-light dessert designed for the Chinese palate, but we were so stuffed from dinner nobody cared.
And of course, there are few better ways to end a Chinese dinner than over a plate of fruit and dry ice.
Despite trying curb my tendency to over-order and stuffing ourselves like a patriotic souls, Jacob and I still took home a container full of duck and fried rice. It was a lot of food, but still more manageable than the one year we cooked an entire turkey for two, then ate the remains for the next month. On Friday I finished the leftovers in two go's.
See, I doubt a Peking duck sandwich with stuffing and mayo would be very good.
Bonus alcohol fun facts:
What do the Chinese drink for holiday celebrations? Or just special occasions involving Peking duck? In Beijing, you may see groups of male business colleagues challenging each other to chug baijiu, a potent and noxious grain alcohol best left unconsumed.
But in family situations when machismo and "face" aren't factors, locals like to relax with some Tsingtao or Chinese wine. I am not at all a fan of Great Wall wine with duck (or Great Wall wine with anything), but my relatives are.
And of course, there is the perennial favorite drink imported from the West, cradled gently in a waiter's arms and presented to the table with flourish: a gleaming bottle of Coca-Cola, 2008 vintage.
Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant 北京大董烤鸭店
1-2/F Nanxincang International Plaza, 22A Dongsi Shitiao,
(southwest of Dongsi Shitiao Bridge)
Dongcheng District, Beijing