Follow Me Foodie to The Great Peking Duck Hunt in Beijing!
I’ve watched The Amazing Race and I’ve played Duck Hunt before on Nintendo, but this was a combination of both… in my real foodie life. It was my last night in Follow Me Foodie to Beijing and I wasn’t satisfied with the one Peking Duck experience I had. It was “too regular”, almost dry and seemingly touristy and I just knew in my heart that it could get better. It had to. I was determined to go on The Great Peking Duck Hunt in Beijing.
The saying is that “you haven’t been to Beijing until you’ve tried Peking Duck”, and as a foodie I had to comply. The Peking Duck I had really wasn’t impressive and I was more impressed with the standards of the Peking Ducks I could get in Vancouver, BC (my hometown). I wasn’t satisfied with this as an answer and I hate using “my hometown” as a “standard”, but I must say Vancouver does pretty good Peking Ducks! It is a Beijing specialty though and I wanted that “life-changing” authentic Peking Duck experience to share. Little did I know it would be such an adventure to find it.
This is all I had to go by. A local in Beijing gave me a receipt for where she thought “the best Peking Duck” was. I never believe in “the best”, but I believe in a favourite and a local in Beijing is more likely to know better than I would. The only problem was that the receipt was almost all in Chinese. She also emphasized that I couldn’t miss the restaurant and that it was located on the second floor and that I would be greeted by a duck statue at the front. Well okay, that helps. It shouldn’t be too hard to find… right?
I asked the hotel concierge to find me the address and they couldn’t find it. For some reason the internet wasn’t working either and basically nothing was on my side. Long story short I only had this receipt and no direction or help to find it. For some reason every person I asked said there was no receipt on the address too. Note to restaurant owners: print the address on the receipt. Communication in China was a big battle and there was a lot of Pictionary and Charades and a simple address would have helped.
The cab driver I got to get to this famous duck restaurant ended up getting a bit lost. Of course I wouldn’t have known how lost until he pulled over and made a call (I’m assuming to ask for directions). I thought I was getting ripped off at this point, but then I knew Beijing was huge and I gave the benefit of the doubt. He ended up driving maybe a couple minutes further and then pulled over again and pointed to the restaurant above. I confirmed if this was the restaurant on the receipt and he nodded yes, so I got out. I saw no duck in the front of the restaurant and there was no second floor so I was already doubtful that this was the right restaurant.
There were some local gentlemen outside the restaurant smoking and eating sunflower seeds from the actual sunflower which I thought was really cool though! In North America we typically see them in packages, so it was so unusual and natural to see them like this.
I went inside the restaurant and gave the waitress this receipt which I thought was the receipt of the famous duck restaurant. I asked her if this restaurant was the same one on the receipt and she shook her head implying “no”.
I kindly asked if she could help me with directions and with some communication struggles she kept explaining she couldn’t help me because she didn’t understand the receipt. I was so confused until I looked at the receipt and realized I had given her a Duty Free receipt. I don’t smoke, but was asked to get a couple boxes for a friend and basically I mixed up the receipts.
Anyways I finally gave her the right receipt and she was kind enough to point me in the proper direction. She kept saying it was the most famous duck restaurant in Beijing so I thought everyone would know where it was. She had broken English but she did promote their Peking Duck while giving me vague directions to find this one. She basically said I was close and it was only a few more streets away. It was hard for her to explain exactly where though.
After running a few more streets away I saw this restaurant. It had to be it. I saw the ducks at the front and it was obviously famous for Peking Duck. On the other hand I was also told it was on the second floor and this wasn’t. I walked in, showed them the receipt and they said “no”. They also said “this is the most famous place for Peking Duck” and then pointed me to go a few more blocks down… again. The directions were vague… again.
So I ran a few more blocks down completely out of breath because I knew that all the restaurants were closing soon since it was almost 10pm. I ran down the streets of Beijing and then I saw this restaurant (above). This had to be it! It was on the second floor! I didn’t see the ducks, but maybe they were inside?
This restaurant was located at a hotel so I showed the door man my receipt and once again I got it wrong. How the heck was I supposed to know that every restaurant in Beijing would advertise Peking Duck?! Or have “duck” in the name!? Or have ducks greeting you at the door?! When I think of it now, of course they would! It’s the local specialty! But I still didn’t know it would be so hard to find.
So the door man pointed me in another direction and said that the restaurant I was looking for was a few blocks down. @#$%. Again!!? I’ve already ran at least six blocks… what the heck is “a few”!? I had no time to waste so off I went again… running a few blocks more.
I decided to do some sight seeing while I was running. I ended up hitting the “downtown” or “The Centre” of Beijing where everything was modern, new and almost like New York or nice parts of London. It was swanky and polished and it was a part of Beijing I had not seen yet which was refreshing.
While running those few extra blocks (which was now at least 5 blocks from my last stop), and confirming with locals by showing them my trashed receipt (to confirm if I was heading the right way), I ran into these kids. It was almost 10pm and these kids were on the streets playing. It was very random and I couldn’t see any parents.
The little girl in the back was holding a broom and swatting Gingko nuts from the tree. The little boy on the left in the blue Paul Frank sweater was playing soccer with apples and then this little boy in the front was playing with some sort of bamboo stick. I’m going to say they had “free spirited” parents… they were cute though. When the little girl saw me stop to take a photo it was almost like she knew she was in trouble and she stopped hacking away at the tree and got down from the chair. Anyway I had no time to waste and I was in no place to discipline (finding their parents wasn’t a concern because I’m pretty sure they were around, but didn’t care, and it was a very safe and public area)… I just wanted duck.
… and there was obviously a duck in the front to greet diners. It had the two key points I was told to look for and the Chinese characters matched the ones on the receipt. I had a bad feeling though as I saw the cooks smoking outside and staff leaving the restaurant. I asked one of them if this was the restaurant and they said it had closed at 9pm… an hour ago. At this point I wanted to kick this duck in the face… so now what? I still wanted my Peking Duck, but at 10:15pm what choice did I still have? I decided to walk back to where it all started… restaurant A.
On my way back I decided to continue my sight seeing. It was really random, but locals in China love dancing on the streets. It wasn’t a flash mob, but they were just line dancing. It happened throughout the day at open parks, streets and just any public spaces.
And next to the breakers there was some ballroom dancing. It was really random and each group of dancers had brought their own music. It wasn’t a dancing school or program, but just ordinary dancing at 10pm at night in downtown Beijing. I have to say it was quite entertaining and it helped ease my Peking Duck disappointment. I was really determined to try that famous Peking Duck restaurant, but this gave me a nice chuckle.
So why did I go back to where I started? Well to be honest the “famous Peking Duck restaurant” looked really touristy with the big plastic yellow duck outside. The other restaurants also looked very touristy and the clientele inside wasn’t exactly convincing or local. At least at restaurant A it looked local and they were kind enough to help me find another restaurant. I also knew they served Peking Duck and I thought it might be even more authentic since it wasn’t in such a prime location like the other ones were. It was worth a shot.
It helped that the menu was in English and Chinese with photos too. On the other hand this can be a sign of a “touristy restaurant” so I was sceptical. Nonetheless the duck menu was very interesting to me. (Sorry for the poor photo, I wasn’t planning to post it). The duck menu was unlike most authentic Chinese restaurants serving duck in North America.
The idea of “authenticity” can get quite arguable so I won’t even go there, but I will point out that they used every part of the duck for a dish. The head, the tongue, the feet and the heart were all used for a specific dish. Duck tongues an hearts I enjoy, but the head served like this I’ve never seen before or tried. I mentioned in Follow Me Foodie to Beijing that the Chinese do not waste any parts of the animal, and with a population of 1,344,130,000 (current statistic) it shouldn’t be that surprising.
In Vancouver, Peking Duck is always offered in 2 courses: Peking Duck with Crepes followed by Peking Duck Lettuce Wraps. In Hong Kong there might be a Peking Duck soup as well. I didn’t see one Peking Duck lettuce wrap in China though. I don’t want to say Peking Duck lettuce wraps aren’t “authentic” or the Peking Duck is even less authentic outside of Beijing, but the style is just different in Beijing. I saw sweet and sour pork in lots of Beijing places and it is considered a rather authentic dish there, so when it comes to “authenticity” it can get very complicated and questionable depending on who you ask.
And tada! I finally got my Peking Duck in Beijing. It might not have been “famous”, although the Chinese name of this restaurant apparently means “Peking Duck” (I was told), so maybe it was “famous”? I know the whole “famous restaurant” game can lead to a bunch of tourist traps, but as a tourist there is only so much research you can do before you just have to go with your instincts and with the limited information you know.
Unfortunately this Peking Duck didn’t really live up to expectations. It also wasn’t what I expected. The crepes weren’t house made, the skin wasn’t as crispy and the fat was still a bit chewy. It was good and edible and decently moist, but not epic or even very memorable. I more or less grew up with this dish and have tried several versions of it in and outside of Asia, so it’s rather familiar. I’m not a “Peking Duck connoisseur”, but there are things I look for and things I like.
So what do I look for in a Peking Duck? Well first, you always want it carved at table side. It’s a skill and art form to be able to slice the duck with an equal amount of skin and meat. Some experienced and very talented chefs can get 200+ slices out of a normal sized duck which I haven’t even seen yet. It also has to be served hot and the skin crisp and the crepes homemade, thin and not too doughy or dry. The meat has to be tender and moist and also not full of marinades and seasonings.
In the past, traditional older generation Chinese would love really fatty ducks, but nowadays more and more Chinese prefer leaner ducks with the fat well rendered and not chewy. Times and diets have changed and while the meats are more fatty in Asia than in North America, generally a lot of Chinese prefer leaner cuts now… not lean, but leaner.
**Additional note: I want to make this a bold point because it affects every post I’ve written about Peking Duck in the past. It was only until this trip to Beijing that I learned that authentic Peking Duck comes with the skin ATTACHED to the meat. I was told by several Hong Kong chefs that Peking Duck authentically comes with the skin completely separated from the meat on a separate plate (how I normally see it in Vancouver and Hong Kong too), but it turns out that this is the Cantonese-Chinese style and NOT the authentic Beijing style. I feel so embarrassed now. Peking Duck is a Beijing specialty and the Cantonese adapted it. My apologies for giving you mis guided information for the past 3 years, but it turns out we’re all learning and open to mistakes. Food history and “authenticity” really depends on who you ask and you only know what you know. Now that I know, I can finally get the story straight.
And this is the after photo of the original receipt I started with. I don’t know how many times it flew out of my hands while running. Although I didn’t get my ultimate Peking Duck experience, I did get a pretty good story. It also leaves me with something to go back for! Follow Me Foodie to Beijing – Part 2? Hopefully again one day!