On the Hunt for Southeast Asia’s Best Peking Duck
Feb 5, 2021
I ADMIT IT: I’M A QUACK. WHEN I SEE DUCKS IN A POND, I don’t think “cute,” I go “yum.” Holly Golightly may admire diamonds in a Tiffany’s boutique, but I’ll stop and stare into windows at Asian barbecue shops where glistening carcasses hang. Duck is delicious slowly confited in oil, or shredded and tossed into a steaming bowl of noodle soup. But the very best way to enjoy our fine, feathered friend is roasted to a crisp, and carved tableside, a la Peking duck.
Enjoyed at Beijing’s imperial court for centuries, the dish has since spread its wings to Chinese restaurants around the world. The combination of crackling toffee-like skin, rendered fat, and juicy dark meat, is euphoria in a bite. Not all Peking ducks are created equal however, and a bad one, of which there are many, is very disappointing indeed. That will not be a problem at these top-flight establishments.
Tunglok Xihe claims to be the first restaurant in Singapore to use the “wagyu of duck,” a hybrid of Peking and Aylsebury ducks from Silver Hill Farm in Ireland. Bred for their density and porous skin, the birds are reared for 42 days, before the feathers harden, making them easier to pluck without damaging the skin.
The wound-free ducks at Tunglok Xihe are stuffed with spices, hung and blasted with cold air for a day to cure, then refrigerated for two days, then cured again. When ready, they are coated in a mixture of red dates, water and spices, then roasted in a traditional oven at 220 degrees Celsius. The result: a duck with crisp skin, succulent meat, a heady fragrance and plenty of flavor.
The duck is carved table-side and separately portioned into skin, breast and thigh. It’s served with their game-changing Eight Treasures Box: a novel condiment platter that includes a popping candy sugar, blueberry sauce, mustard sauce, black bean sauce, cucumber, spring onion, red onion and pancakes.
In a display of chutzpah, Min Jiang at Dempsey calls its Beijing duck “legendary.” The strikingly light and airy restaurant has certainly established itself as Singapore’s go-to when duck cravings strike. Overseen by a specialist chef who learned his trade in a Peking duck restaurant in northern China, Min Jiang uses meaty 55-day-old ducks, which are roasted in a fragrant applewood-fired oven until it turns a deep golden brown. The skin is served with sugar for dipping, and the meat comes with a traditional sweet sauce, leek and cucumber, and a pungent garlic paste.
Plant-power bonus: Due to popular demand, Min Jiang also offers a crispy mock Peking duck, made with deep-fried marinated beancurd skin. It arrives with wheat crepes and two condiments: julienned cucumber and plum sauce. The beancurd skin provides good crunch factor, the spice marinade imparts a flavor kick, the fresh cucumber refreshes, and the plum sauce adds complexity.
Cheung Chin Choi may well be Bangkok’s duck whisperer. The Hong Kong-trained executive chef at Fei Ya, in the Renaissance Ratchaprasong Hotel, doesn’t need a thermometer or timer to tell him when it’s cooked. He stands by the open oven and feels the heat, adjusting the temperature here, rotating a bird there, and gently coaxing it to glossy brown perfection by relying on his intuition and years of experience.
Fei Ya’s ducks weigh about three kilos, are 50- to 60-days-old, male (Choi says that the meat is leaner, the skin crisper than that of females), and sourced from Thai farms. Ducks are glazed with a special house syrup while they hang to dry for 48 hours, then roasted over aromatic lychee wood.
As is the practice, it is carved tableside, and served with pancakes, minced garlic, cucumber, spring onion and dried lychee cooked in Chinese wine, a twist that adds a hint of acidity. Several options for a second course are offered—Choi’s favorite is crispy rice noodles with duck meat.
If have your stomach set on a weekend duck feast from this moody stunner at the brand-new Four Seasons Bangkok at Chao Phraya, you don’t just have to preorder the dish a day in advance, you have to reserve your table a month in advance. The City of Angels (even during a Covid-induced temporary alcohol prohibition!) can’t get enough of this mod, bespoke-art bedecked, swimming in feng shui Cantonese restaurant overlooking a water garden.
It is helmed by two-Michelin-starred chef Qui Xiaogui, who decamped to Bangkok from Guangzhou with his entire, incredibly experienced team—including award-winning Chinese barbecue chef Liu Guokun (pictured), who’s been playing with fire for 27 years. Before the hotel opened, chefs Xiaogui and Kun spent a year testing and tasting ducks from farms around Thailand, evaluating how variables like feed and the environment affected how tender the meat and how flawless the skin became.
Watch Kun precision-carve your duck through the window of the open kitchen at the entrance to the restaurant, while crimson flames dramatically lick the insides of the barbecue oven behind him. “Chef Kun is the best barbecue chef I’ve ever worked with,” Xiaogui says. “His roasting talents brings the best out of each piece of meat.” Signature finishing touch? You’ll know he’s satisfied with the quality when he busts out in a huge smile.
When Mott 32 opened in a former bank vault seven years ago, it ruffled a few feathers. Dark, sexy and slinky, the basement with an attitude couldn’t be dismissed as all style and no substance: the food was too good and its Peking duck soared to new heights. Even in the dimly lit room, you can see the sheen of the bird’s taut skin, and smell the fragrance that comes from being roasted with apple-wood in a brick oven for 24 hours.
Group Chinese executive chef Lee Man Sing’s secret is the 42-day-old ducks from Tianjin, aged for 48 hours in conditions meant to emulate Beijing’s weather—minus the pollution. This allows crystal-like skin and a deeper flavor to develop. Ducks are hand-carved table-side using a traditional royal cut technique meant to lock in the meat’s juices, and served with springy, paper-thin pancakes.
Diners in Singapore, Vancouver, Las Vegas and soon, Bangkok, needn’t fret, as Lee is in charge of ensuring ducks are cooked the right way at all of Mott 32’s branches.
Plant-power bonus: Herbivores can get in on the action too. A new plant-based menu includes an impressive simulacrum—vegetarian Peking duck, made with deep-fried tofu skin, mushroom and pickled cucumber.
Three-Michelin-starred T’ang Court belongs to the world’s most elite culinary club. While the restaurant is a bastion of classic Cantonese cuisine, its Peking duck is deservedly popular, too. The setting is old-school—thick carpet, heavy drapes, double-clothed tables—and the service formal. Helming the kitchen is Chinese master chef Kwong Wai-keung, who learned how to make Peking duck the traditional way when he was a teenager working his way up the kitchen ranks.
For Kwong, the most important step to guaranteeing crackling skin is the dousing of syrup water on the duck as it hangs to dry. The ducks, sourced from Guangdong, weigh between two-and-a-half and three kilos, which Kwong believes gives it the ideal skin-to-meat-to-fat ratio.
Special care is taken to slice the skin minus any fat, before serving it with traditional accompaniments of pancakes, cucumber, leek and sweet bean sauce. The meat is saved for the second course, which Kwong recommends tossed with fresh bamboo shoots and wrapped in lettuce leaf, an almost healthy way to polish off the decadent duck.