Chengdu Challenge #24: Sichuan Crispy Duck (Xiang Su Yazi)
Happy Year of the Monkey! Chinese New Year calls for lucky food, food that calls down health, wealth and happiness for the new year. But be careful what you wish for.
The Chinese eat dumplings shaped like gold ingots, whole fish because the word for it sounds like the word for surplus, long noodles to symbolize long life, and a whole chicken to represent family togetherness. I’m especially interested in laying the groundwork for family happiness and togetherness in the coming year, so I wanted to include the chicken in our New Year’s meal.
When Fong Chong lived in rural Guangzhou, it was her job at the New Year to pluck the feathers out of the chicken after it had been killed and scalded by her foster brother. Our chicken would not be that fresh, unfortunately, but even if it were, a whole chicken is just not that exciting to us. We have whole roasted chicken all the time in the West.
What we don’t have all the time, a type of poultry that is a real treat, is duck. So that will work for our New Year’s happy-family wish, right?
Everyone knows the Chinese make the best duck, specifically Peking duck and Sichuan tea-smoked duck. I believe Peking duck is best left to the professionals in Peking, and tea-smoked duck is borderline too difficult for home cooks. It’s one of those dishes I always think I’m going to make, but never actually do. I like a cooking project as much as anyone–or I wouldn’t have an authentic Sichuan cooking blog–but I rarely have the time for an all-day recipe. Plus, even though I have a well-stocked Sichuan pantry, it does not include camphor laurel leaves, straw, pine and cypress branches, which are the smoking materials called for along with jasmine tea in Sichuan (China) Cuisine in Both Chinese and English.
However, super delicious Sichuan crispy duck is very doable. And in fact, I’ve had crispy-skinned duck served to me far more times in Sichuan than tea-smoked duck. The procedure is basically the same, but crispy duck omits the smoking step and retains just the marinating, steaming and deep-frying. It still takes some forethought, but it is not tricky at all if you have basic Chinese cooking equipment—a wok, a lid, a steamer rack that sits in the bottom of it, and a bowl that will hold the duck but still fit in the wok. (Or some similar steamer contraption that will hold a duck.)
The first step is simply marinating the duck in Shaoxing wine, aromatics, Sichuan pepper and five-spice powder. There’s a large variation in the taste of five spice—which is generally comprised of star anise, fennel, cinnamon, cloves and Sichuan pepper, but which may be a different mix of Chinese spices. Just make sure you like the one you buy, or make, as you will definitely taste it in the final product.
The marinated duck goes in the steamer for an hour and 15 minutes or longer, depending on the size. It should be completely cooked through and tender but not falling apart, as that will make it hard to deep-fry. Keep an eye on your steamer to make sure it always has sufficient water and that your duck juices are not overflowing your bowl. You may have to pour some juice off. Save it! You’ll have delicious duck juice and fat for other uses.
After the duck is steamed, lift it upright to let the juices from the interior run out. Then transfer to a cutting board, dry it off with a paper towel and let it cool. For handling the duck, I use tongs stuck up in its inside or just pick it up by its legs, which is less likely to tear that precious skin.
The final step is to deep-fry the duck to crisp up the skin. Use enough oil to come half-way up the duck and deep-fry on each side until it is deep golden brown and crisp, about five minutes per side. You’ll want to be careful when flipping the duck, though it’s not as scary as it sounds.
For our first meal of this duck we served it simply with vegetables and rice. The Cookbook suggests serving it with sweet wheat paste (tian mian jiang), though I have never seen it served with any sauce in Sichuan. It usually just comes chopped up on the plate with the optional condiment of chili flakes. I used both condiments for this effort, but preferred just a touch of the chili on each bite. If you use the sweet wheat paste, I would dilute it a bit with Zhenjiang vinegar and sesame oil. Or you could just use hoisin sauce, which is similar.
Sichuanese do not serve their duck with those thin Mandarin pancakes used for Peking duck, but you can if you like. More likely, it would be served with bao, or steamed bread. For our second meal of the duck, we used the leftovers to make duck bao, garnished with simple cucumber pickle, scallions and hoisin. We made our own bao, which I highly suggest, since they have a much more yeasty, sweet, rich taste than the store-bought versions. Check out my recipe (via David Chang) here.
You may have noticed that I cooked the duck whole, but I served it already cut. That probably defeats the purpose of my New Year’s wish for family togetherness. But it turned out not to matter. After the meal, I went back and checked my source about Chinese New Year’s food to see if duck was on it. It was. But it doesn’t symbolize family togetherness and happiness.
It symbolizes fertility.
- 1 whole duck (minus head and feet)
- 2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
- 2 teaspoons sliced ginger
- 4 scallions, cut into sections
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon ground, roasted Sichuan pepper
- 1 teaspoon five-spice powder
- 3 cups canola or peanut oil
- Rinse the duck and make sure you retrieve anything packed inside, such as the neck and giblets. Put those aside for another use if you wish. Dry the duck off and put it in your steaming bowl. Pour the Shaoxing wine over both sides of the bird and sprinkle all over with the salt, Sichuan pepper and five-spice powder. Arrange the ginger and scallions inside and on the duck. Leave to marinate for two hours.
- Bring water to a boil in your steamer and place the bowl with the duck inside it. Keeping the water at a low boil, cover tightly and steam. Check periodically to make sure you have sufficient water and top off with boiling water from a kettle when water level is low. Also make sure your bowl does not overflow with duck juices; you may have to dip some out. Check bird after about one hour and 15 minutes. The juices should run clear and the meat should be tender. Continue steaming if necessary, but not so long that duck starts to fall apart. Remove duck from the steamer bowl, standing upright so that the juices run out, then transfer to a cutting board. When it is cool enough to handle, dry it off with a paper towel and leave to cool and dry completely. Retain the duck juices and fat for other uses.
- Remove the scallions and ginger. Heat wok until you see the heat rise from it, then add about 3 cups canola or peanut oil. Heat to 375°F (190°C) and gently lower duck into the oil, breast side down. Fry until it is deep golden-brown, about five minutes. Carefully flip it over and fry the other side. When both sides are golden, lift bird up and allow oil to drain from the interior. Transfer to a cutting board and allow to rest and cool briefly. Carve into nice pieces and arrange on a platter. Serve with condiments of hoisin sauce and Asian chili flakes if you like.