Crispy duck is one of those irresistible Chinese delicacies – you’ll find it on almost every Chinese restaurant in the UK – and you’ll be surprised how easy it is to make at home.
"Crispy duck is irresistible, with its meltingly fragrant skin and tender flesh wrapped up in thin wheaten pancakes with slivers of refreshing cucumber and spring onion, and a dash of dark, sweet-sour sauce," says Fuchsia Dunlop, who trained as a chef in China and is the award-winning author of three books on Chinese cuisine.
To marinate the duck, prick the legs all over with a skewer, then put in a large bowl. Add the salt and peppercorns. Pound the star anise and cassia with a pestle and mortar to break them into smaller pieces, then add them to the bowl, along with the crushed ginger, spring onions and Shaoxing wine (available from Asian supermarkets or online). Rub the salt and spices all over the duck legs. Set aside, covered, in the fridge for at least a couple of hours, or overnight.
Drain off and discard any juices, then put the duck legs, along with the spices, in a heatproof glass or ceramic bowl. Cover the bowl with foil and place in a large pan. Pour in boiling water to halfway up the side of the bowl. Cover, then steam over a high heat for 2 hours until the duck is tender and the meat comes away from the bones easily. Top up the pan with water regularly so it doesn’t dry out.
Meanwhile, prepare the trimmings. Cut the cucumber into 5cm lengths, then into fine, even slivers. Cut the spring onion into fine, even slivers. Put the sliced veg into small serving dishes.
Once the duck has steamed, remove the bowl from the steamer. Tasty liquid will have come out of the duck legs – strain and keep it to use as stock for soup or a bowl of noodles (it will be salty, so you may need to dilute it). Remove the duck legs from the liquid, discarding any whole spices sticking to them, then set aside to dry (if you’re planning to deep-fry them immediately, pat them dry with kitchen paper).
To deep-fry the duck, heat the oil in a wok or deep-fat fryer to 180°C. To check the temperature, drop a cube of bread in the oil – it should brown within 1 minute. Use tongs to lower the duck legs into the oil, then deep-fry for 5 minutes until they are a deep mahogany brown, turning occasionally.
Pour a little boiled water into another pan (or wok) over a medium heat. Lay a stack of pancakes directly onto the slats of a bamboo steamer that will fit into your pan, then cover with the steamer’s lid. Steam for 1-2 minutes to heat them through. (Or you could microwave them on high for 10 seconds.) Spoon some hoisin sauce into a serving dish.
Remove the duck legs to a serving dish, then use a couple of forks to shred the skin and meat. Serve with the steamer of pancakes, the cucumber, spring onion and hoisin sauce. To eat, spread hoisin sauce on a pancake, add pieces of duck and slivers of onion and cucumber, then roll up and tuck in.
Simple shortcuts – and a few alternatives to try
1. You can vary the spices you use in the marinade if you like. Some recipes suggest using just star anise and Sichuan pepper, others recommend adding cassia bark, as here (it’s also known as Chinese cinnamon), along with fennel seeds, cloves, cardamom and dried liquorice root. At a pinch, you could use Chinese five-spice powder instead, but it won’t give you the depth of flavour of the whole spices.
2. Mandarin pancakes (bao bing) are tricky to make at home, but you can buy them fresh in Waitrose, and fresh or frozen in good Chinese supermarkets. Crispy duck is also great in split steamed buns (often sold frozen in Chinese supermarkets), or (if you’re not too concerned with authenticity) with Mexican flour tortillas.
3. Several brands of hoisin sauce can be found in Western and Oriental supermarkets, including Yeo’s and Lee Kum Kee, but they all tend to be very sweet. For a more authentic and sophisticated taste, buy sweet fermented sauce (tian mian jiang).
Crispy duck: the inside track
In China this isn’t a common dish, as it is here. And it’s rarely, if ever, served with thin pancakes. So how did such a combination of duck, pancakes and the other accompaniments become one of the signature dishes of the British Chinese restaurant scene?
The familiar crispy duck accompaniments are actually borrowed from Peking duck, a legendary classic of Chinese cuisine. Peking duck, however, is impossible to make authentically at home or in a normal restaurant kitchen, because it must be roasted to order in a brick oven heated by a fruitwood fire – only then will it have the crisp, lacquered, melt-in-your mouth skin and juicy flesh that are the hallmarks of the dish.
For ordinary restaurateurs, crispy duck is a godsend. Served with all the trimmings of its more famous Peking counterpart, it has the air of a grand old classic, but it can be made in a normal kitchen without the fruitwood or brick oven.
Although crispy duck takes a bit of time to prepare, it’s relatively easy to make. The fowl, either whole or in portions, can be marinated and steamed in advance, and simply needs to be deep-fried before it is served. Many Chinese regions have a local version of the dish, made with roughly similar methods.
In some areas it is served with little bowls of roasted salt and Sichuan pepper. In Sichuan itself it may be served with steamed buns, spring onion and sweet fermented sauce. Crispy duck isn’t regarded as a classic of traditional cuisine: it only began to appear in Sichuanese recipe books in the 1950s.