Friday, October 14, 2016

Do you even Chinese Phood, brah? Pt 1

Yeah, yeah, it's been a minute since my last post(s). Shame on me, blah blah blah. But are you ready for some more foodp0rn? I mean the really good stuff. No Panda Expressin' it here. Let's see how well you know real Chinese food...

These are from my last trip to Beijing, which I've been lazy about uploading. But you know I wouldn't leave you hanging forever, right? Now, let's talk northern Chinese food.

When you're in Beijing (née Peking), you have Peking duck.

"But wait, AJ, I have Peking Duck all the time at [such and such] Chinatown!"

Ok, first of all, wrong. Chances are, you have a Cantonese roast duck. Mostly because chances are, you're living by a Cantonese Chinatown. For a number of historical reasons that I'll punt to another AJ blog on another day, that's going to be the case.

The Chinatown duck, dripping with grease, is NOT Peking Duck. Credit: Laika ac
To the untrained eye, all ducks might look the same (there's a joke to be made here), but they're completely different. Duck, of course, naturally has a thick layer of fat, especially around the breast area. An authentic Peking Duck will have its skin -- as well as the adjoining fat -- roasted to a crisp (think chicharron) . In fact, the skin is arguably the biggest draw when consuming the duck.

When ordering a Peking Duck, it's important to note these niblets of knowledge:

  • The type of duck is also called a "Pekin" variety. And yes, that name obviously comes from Beijing. It's your standard, homestead-variety white duck, bred and domesticated ages ago in ancient China.
  • Proper Peking Duck is roasted in a wood-fired oven. In the dusty plains of Northern China, wood has historically been a scarce resource... so naturally the elites had to make it even harder by specifying a particular type of wood... from the jujube (Chinese date) tree. Low smoke levels and a pleasant aroma are some of the more practical reasons for using this type of wood.
  • It's an experience. When dining in, a proper duck is sliced by a specially-trained chef (think Japanese puffer fish, but sans toxin). The better restaurants will always try to make some kind of visual spectacle of the "carving", and will do it at your table, right before your eyes.
Our diligent chef carving away

More fun facts:

  • The Peking Duck is meticulously sliced into precisely (an auspicious) 108 pieces. However, unless you're going to sit there for 15 minutes and Count von Count the exact number, your chef will probably also take some liberties with that number. But definitely feel free to contrast this with the Chinatown duck experience.
  • After slicing, you're asked by the establishment how you'd like to consume the leftovers (mostly bone meat). Usually patrons choose between making duck soup or tossing it in a stir fry. You can also take the bone meat as-is or refuse it altogether (if you're feeling particularly wasteful, which is apparently new Beijing chic).
Special Note 1: At this point, you'll have to excuse the low-light environment. This was one of the more favored restaurants by locals in central Beijing, but it also happened to have the ambiance of a nightclub. Well, given that I was being treated I wasn't going to complain.

Here's what one plate of sliced duck looked like :

I think we got two or three of these plates

Don't forget to pack the condiments.

One thing that's really important to note is that you don't just eat the duck straight. Because no, that would just be too easy, wouldn't it? No, like everything else that's associated with the imperial elite, foods had to be presented with extravagance but consumed with conservatism. That's why we have all these nice condiments.
  • Traditionally, the must-have condiments were scallion/green onion and plum sauce/sweet bean paste. Nowadays, upscale restaurants will start charging for your condiment "set", so they've dressed it up quite a bit, with things like sea salt, pickled radishes, and veggies.

The point is to wrap it all up like a mini egg roll.

I tried and did a horrible job. Not just that, but I realized I was doing it wrong the whole time. My little Peking Duck roll was subpar. No pics, sorry.

Special Note 2: At this point, I'll now confess that I was kind of on a traditional Chinese set-up date for this meal. Yeah, I know. That's why I didn't go full-on crazy with the photos (sorry). But the good thing is, you can enjoy Jane's beautiful, impeccably well-manicured hands school me on how to properly roll a Peking Duck.

You do it with your chopsticks, apparently. smh moment.

So, mine (just trust me on this) ended up looking like silly-putty on the asphalt in a Fresno summer. Whereas much like Jane herself, her roll was neat, slim, and exquisitely presented:

It was tasty.

So this one in the photo above was made for me (I know, aww). Anyways, did it taste any better than my own? Objectively, no. But I sure enjoyed seeing it get made. And I suppose that's really half the fun of Peking Duck -- it's as much a show as it is a tasty entree.

One final thing. I don't really eat duck too often. To be honest, it's not my favorite thing and I feel a little weird eating it. I guess it's because ducks are among my favorite creatures. I take photos of them anytime I see them. Ducks pair for life, which I find incredibly endearing. You'll never find a duck more than a few yards away from its mate. So suffice it to say that while I certainly enjoy this delicacy, it's not an everyday food for me to any degree.

That's it for now, but stay tuned for Part 2 of what (I'm hoping) will be a 3-part series on me catching this blog up with Chinese food, IRL.