If there’s one dish that is synonymous with China’s capital, it’s Beijing kaoya, commonly known as Peking or Beijing duck. Roasted in stone ovens until crispy, then wrapped in wafer-thin pancakes, Beijing’s signature dish is well known and loved all around the world. But what’s the story behind the delicacy?
Ducks have been roasted in China since ancient times. The first written mention of kaoya came during the Yuan Dynasty when a cook book was published in 1330 detailing the emperor’s fondness for duck. The Ming emperors who succeeded the Yuan took on the imperial recipe, and the first duck restaurant opened in Qianmen in 1416. The reign of the Qing Dynasty’s Qianlong Emperor saw roast duck filtering down from the aristocracy to the middle classes, and poets began to write about its flavor and charm. Yang Quanren, who invented a special sort of oven to hang ducks, opened the now-famous duck restaurant Quan Ju De in 1864.
Originally, the birds used to make kaoya were wild ducks from the canals of Nanjing, but the breed was later domesticated and named “Pekin ducks.” They are first allowed to roam free-range for 45 days before being fattened up to 5-7 kilograms (11-17 lbs.) through four meals a day. After a duck is killed, its de-feathered body is pumped with air to separate the skin from the flesh, then basted with maltose syrup and left to hang for 24 hours. It is then roasted in a special oven for 30-40 minutes at 270 degrees Celsius (518°F) until brown. The duck is served in two parts: first the skin is brought out, and eaten with a sugary dipping sauce. Next, the rest of the bird is carved at the table and wrapped in pancakes with scallions, sliced cucumber, and a sweet sauce.
Such is the importance of kaoya that Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China is attributed to a duck banquet between the Chinese and Henry Kissinger in Beijing. Since then, international leaders, including Fidel Castro, Helmut Kohl, and Bill Clinton, have enjoyed its flavors.