Famous in China, duck meat is one of India's underrated regional dishes

With demand for duck increasing from specialty restaurants, some modern duck farms have come up - many of them in the North close to Delhi.
Peking Duck (File photo)
Peking Duck (File photo)

One of the casualties of the broiler revolution has been duck meat.

Though duck was never as popular as Chicken in India even in the pre-commercial poultry farming era, it was not rare.

Especially in eastern India, Kerala and even Goa, which had a large number of stagnant water bodies, villagers commonly reared ducks. Ducks needed less attention in farming than chicken and yielded more eggs.

Conservative Hindus preferred duck eggs over chicken eggs not just for the size, but also for other reasons explained by this writer in a previous column. Duck egg omelettes and duck egg curry were a delicacy among Bengalis and Odias.

The Goans and Malayalis had their favourite duck preparations, like the Moilee and spicy Kerala Duck Fry. The Anglo-Indians had their own version of Duck Vindaloo.

In my childhood, one could get good duck in Kolkata’s New Market. Then, duck was a regular item in the menus of clubs and the many continental restaurants of the city.

Duck meat is amenable to roasting. So, roasted duck in different sauces like orange and red wine jus were signature Indo-Anglian dishes carried forward from the time of the (British) Raj.

A fatty layer is key to most duck preparations including our very own Vindaloo and Moilee.

The native Indian duck is relatively lean.

However, for Western cooking (as indeed for Oriental cooking to which we shall come in a bit) a fatty bird is a prerequisite – otherwise the meat turns out to be dry and fibrous.

Like pork – duck fat that clings to the skin imparts flavour to the meat as well as the spices and vegetables. To cater to this evolved customer set, there used to be limited breeding of English ducks those days. But those exotic varieties have all but disappeared from the market.

Though ducks have been farmed for ages, it was probably first domesticated in South China by paddy farmers and from there it spread to SouthEast Asia. The Ming Dynasty Emperors were known to fatten the Nanjing Duck before slaughtering. Thereby hangs the tale of the legendary Peking Duck.

I have not been to Beijing but have tasted Peking Duck in other parts of the world - most notably Hong Kong. London has its own variant of Peking Duck - with a much simplified recipe - available in the SOHO China Town of Leicester Square. It is a must visit for me on every trip to the UK.

In India, now many high-end Chinese restaurants offer aromatic duck with rice pancakes, hoisin sauce, leek or spring onion and cucumber slices.

But that is hardly the complete experience.  The real Peking Duck is a three course meal. The only place that served it was the old Taipan Restaurant in the Delhi Oberoi.

A whole roasted Duck would be brought in a trolley. The crispy skin sliced off, with a thin layer of meat. The pancakes will be brought in bamboo wicker steamers.

While you are busy applying the Sauce to the pancakes, making a bed of leek and cucumber slices on top of which the pieces of duck are placed to make rolls, the chef will cook the meat left on the bones in a sauce of your choice and serve with bowls of steamed rice.

Finally to wrap up the meal they bring a broth made from the bones and the fat left on the skin. It was all a grand ritual. No wonder Peking Duck acquired the status of China’s National Dish served at state banquets for foreign dignitaries by successive Chinese Premiers from Chou en Lai to Xi Jinping.

I tried my hand at making Peking Duck when I lived in Nepal. Chinese Ducks - which were large and fatty - were easily available there. The trick is to take the whole duck with the skin intact, hang it over the kitchen sink and pour boiling water over it from a kettle.

This results in the skin separating from the flesh and ballooning out with the attached layer of fat.

Next, after patting the duck dry with a cloth, season it with the Chinese 5 spice powder and let it hang overnight. If the weather is warm it may be a good idea to place a table fan next to it.

The following day the bird is ready to cook. Apply the Hoisin Sauce and roast till the skin is crisp and it has acquired the perfect brown hue.

After that, follow the Oberoi Taipan sequence mentioned above.

The amateur effort will not turn out to be restaurant quality for sure, but it will pass-off as a distant cousin of the original if had with a generous helping of the sauce and pancakes, washed down with copious quantities of alcohol.

With demand for duck increasing from specialty restaurants, I believe some modern duck farms have come up - many of them in the North close to Delhi. Smoked Duck breasts are now easy to find at gourmet delicatessens.

But for the most part, duck farming is being promoted as a poverty alleviation scheme in rural areas combined with small-scale pisco-culture.

Unlike other poultry like Quails, Emu, Turkey - there is no serious attempt to market duck meat. So it still remains essentially a regional ethnic cuisine.

Arguably, the North East has the maximum variety of local duck recipes - using a plethora of vegetables from potato, bamboo shoot, ash gourd and also black lentil. The Kuttanad region of Kerala, near  Alappuzha, Kottayam is famous for its Duck Roast or Duck Curry with Coconut Milk to be had with Puttu or Appam. There are also innovative variants of duck served by nouvelle cuisine restaurants such as Duck Breasts with Mango Chutney or Tamarind Jam.

But in my bucket list remains a visit to Bianyifang and Quanjude - the iconic Peking Duck restaurants in Beijing (much like our very own Moti Mahal and Karim’s in old Delhi). Maybe someday. But if the trade-off has to be between Covid and other strange Chinese maladies and my own amateur cooking, I would rather chose the latter for this life.

Read all food columns by Sandip Ghose here

(Sandip Ghose is an author and current affairs commentator. He tweets @SandipGhose.)

Related Stories

No stories found.

The New Indian Express