The art of roasting ducks evolved from techniques used to prepare sucking pigs. For more than a century, specialized chefs have developed the idea that the skin of the duck should be so soft and crisp that it melts in the mouth. In applying the traditional method of preparation, the chefs at Quanjude pay particular attention to the quality of the duck, the auxiliary ingredients and the type of wood burned in the oven. Special farms supply plump Beijing ducks weighing an average of 2.5 kilograms each. The two famous Beijing condiment shops, Liubiju and Tianyuan, supply the dark tangy bean sauce spread on the pancakes. The fragrant sesame oil and refined sugar are also specially selected. Finally, only the wood of fruit trees such as date, peach and pear are used in the roasting process to give the meat its unique fragrance.
The preparation of the dish requires a series of complicated steps, which include inflating the unbroken skin like a balloon so that it roasts just right. Quanjude employs chefs who specialize in these techniques, while other chefs prepare the non-duck dishes. Whereas in the past the restaurant’s staff numbered no more than 40, it has at present grown to over 1,000. Among them are chefs and managers with records of 40 or 50 years of faithful service.
The slicing of the meat from the carcass of the duck is an art in itself. A skilled chef is able to cut between 100 and 120 slices in four or five minutes, each slice with an equal portion of both skin and meat. Inventiveness is another quality cultivated at Quanjude. One seasoned chef has mastered more than 80 dishes made from the duck’s innards, head, wings and webs. A selection of these dishes, whether hot, cold, boiled, fried, stewed or pickled, will be the makings of an all-duck banquet.
The history of the roast duck can be traced back to as early as the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368) when it was listed among the imperial dishes in the Complete Recipes for Dishes and Beverages, written in 1330 by Hu Sihui, an inspector of the imperial kitchen. Details regarding the cooking process were also described in this early cookbook.
In the early 15th century, when the Ming Dynasty capital was shifted from Nanjing to Beijing, roast duck remained one of the famous dishes on imperial court menus. According to the local history, the earliest roast duck restaurant in Beijing was the old Bianyifang Restaurant, which opened during the Jiajing reign (1522-1566). Distinct from the method in which the duck is hung from a hook in the ceiling of the oven and roasted over and roasted over burning wood, the Old Bianyifang Restaurant roasted its ducks with radiant heat. The walls of the oven were first heated with sorghum stalks whereupon the duck was placed inside and cooked by the heat given off by the walls. A duck roasted in this manner is crisp to the touch and golden brown in appearance; its flesh is both tender and tasty.
During the Qianlong period (1736-1796), roast duck was a favorite delicacy of the upper classes. According to Recipes from the Suiyuan Garden, the famous cookbook written by the poet and gourmet Yuan Mei, “Roast duck is prepared by revolving a young duckling on a spit in an oven. The chefs of Inspector Feng’s family excel in preparing this dish.” Other scholars, after dining on roast duck, were inspired to poetry. In one collection of old Beijing rhymes (Duan Zhuzhici) one of the poems reads: “Fill your plates with roast duck and suckling pig.” Another contemporary annotation reads: “When an official gives a banquet he will choose dishes to please each of his guests. For example, Bianyifang’s roast duck”.