According to a Chinese proverb, no visit to Beijing is complete if you miss seeing the Great Wall of China or dining on roasted duck.
If there existed a list of the Seven Culinary Wonders of the World, Peking duck would arguably be near the top. With its trademark crispy skin and succulent juicy flesh, Peking duck is one of the most influential and famous dishes of China, and its history spans hundreds of years.
While the dish is commonly referred to as Peking – or Beijing – duck, in actual fact roasted duck originated from Nanjing, the capital city of the Jiangsu Province, hundreds of miles to the south of Beijing. A variation on the dish, originally named Shaoyazi (literally ‘burning duck’), only came to Beijing when Ming Dynasty Yongle emperor moved his seat north in the 15th century.
The first documented version of the dish was recorded by Hu Sihui, an inspector of the imperial kitchen, who mentioned it amongst the imperial dishes in Yinshan Zhengyao (The Proper and Essential Things for the Emperor’s Food and Drink) in 1330.
In the early 15th century, Peking duck, otherwise known quite simply as Chinese roast duck, was featured on imperial court menus. It was in the imperial kitchens that such dishes were created, and people would travel from all over China to Beijing to cook for the Emperor. However, many of the most successful dishes were smuggled outside of the kitchen and onto the streets of the city. According to local history, the first roast duck restaurant to open was Bianyifang during the Jiajing reign (1522-1566) in the Xianyukou, Qianmen area of Beijing.
It wasn’t until the Qing Dynasty that the popularity of Peking duck spread to the upper classes and wealthy. Indeed, it was so favoured by the literati of China that the dish inspired poetry from writers and scholars. In an old collection of Beijing rhymes, Duan Zhuzhici, one of the poems cites this most notorious of dishes, reading: “Fill your plates with roast duck and suckling pig”.
While the dish remains much the same in flavour and presentation as it always has, the method of cooking has evolved throughout the years. Traditionally, Peking duck was prepared using a method called Menlu, involving using a closed oven. However, in the 1800s a new method, Gualu, in which the birds are hung inside an open oven, became popular. Both methods are used in contemporary Chinese restaurants, and the debate remains about which cooking method is the best.
To satisfy the growing demand for roast duck, many restaurants opened in the city. Perhaps most famous of these is the Quanjude restaurant, whose owner, Yang Quanred, developed the hung oven to roast the ducks that is still used in modern day Chinese kitchens. With its culinary innovations, the restaurant developed into one of the most well known in the country, and it is supposedly responsible for introducing Peking duck to the rest of the world.
By the mid-20th century, Peking duck had become a national symbol of China. Indeed, it is now so renowned that it even has its own museum, and variations of the dish show up everywhere, from the finest dining restaurants to a breakfast alternative of the dish in a famous fast food restaurant in Shanghai.
While most dishes change beyond recognition over hundreds of years, Peking duck remains much the same, as it is and always has been as close to perfect as is possible.