Monday, November 05, 2007

Peking Duck Feast at Peking Express

Peking Duck was originally just a little treat at an Imperial feast, a lovely little burrito of duck, hoisin sauce and spring onion. This little treat took days to prepare.

Three days before the banquet, the duck would be quickly blanched in boiling honey water, then set to dry, then blanched again, and set to dry again. And again. This would go on for days until the skin was tight with honey, and had rendered out much of the fat. Then the duck would be roasted. The point of all this was to get the perfect crispy skin. The skin is the only part of the duck that is actually supposed to be used in Peking Duck. The rest of the duck should be prepared in another dish.

Peking Express knows how to serve the duck right -- as two dishes. But back to the duck....

So the luscious, crispy caramelized skin would then be cut up and served with a steamer full of lovely Mandarin Pancakes (aka Lotus Pancakes or Peking Doilies). These are very thin but tender and glutinous flat breads -- thinner than a tortilla, and when done right, more moist and tender. They should be made with boiling water dough (similar to pot sticker dough) and when made by hand, you put some sesame oil between two layers so you can roll them out extremely thin, two at a time.

You also get a bowl of hoisin sauce -- a salty sweet sauce with a number of spices it in -- and a pile of scallion brushes. Use the scallion (or green onion) to brush some hoisin on the pancake, throw in the onion and the skin, and wrap it up. Delectable!

Peking Express doesn't do the extra thin pancakes, but unlike any other place in town, they do use the right kind of dough. (Other places basically use a very very thin tortilla.) And they give you the actual scallion brushes, when most places give you just a few slivers of green onion and a pile of shredded cucumber.

It's a great dish for a celebration or banquet. We had such a banquet this weekend. The duck and doilies came first, as they should be. They're a great appetizer, but if you have less than four people, you could very well fill up on just this. (Heck, once the duck is gone, it's tempting to ask for more pancakes and just keep gobbling them with the sauce and onions.)

As for the rest of the banquet, the duck is enough to feed two or three people, so be careful how much more your order. Peking Express in particular tends to give you a lot of food for each dish, and we ended up ordering too much. (If you're sharing dishes, as you should at a Chinese banquet, figure the duck to be three dishes, unless you have some really hearty eaters, or you want leftovers.)

After the skin, came the rest of the duck, prepared in a stir-fry with slivers of vegetables and a bright flavor of five spice. (Five spice tends to be a mixture of anise, cinnamon, licorice, hot pepper, and any of a number of other spices -- fennel, cloves, ginger. There may well be more than five spices in there. It's just that five is a lucky number, so that's what it's called.)

The dish the owners always recommend for a banquet at Peking Express is the Giant Oyster Mushroom with Assorted Seafood. Oyster Mushrooms are a nice mild, chewy shroom, and the sauce is a mild garlic gravy. The seafood is shrimp, scallops, and yes...squid. The thing about squid is, if you cook it more than a minute, or less than an hour, it's tough. It doesn't taste bad, but it can be like chewing rubber bands. I'm happy to say that last night, the squid was NOT overcooked. It was a little chewier than the mushroom, but not bad.

The delight of the night was the Eggplant in Hot Pot. This is a gorgeous dish: purple eggplants and colorful sweet peppers baked in a hot clay pot in a sweet soy and wine sauce. I'm really beginning to get over my dislike of eggplant. There are just too many places in town that make good stuff out of it. The liquid in the hot pot keeps its temperature up, so be sure you don't burn yourself on this one.

Lastly we had a dish we've gotten before and we always forget it's not what we expect. Turbot Fish with Baby Bok Choi in Black Bean Sauce has dried salted turbot in it -- the fish is more of a seasoning than a major ingredient. It's tasty, but it's salty. If you want just some nice green veggies with the other dishes, you might try their Pea Greens in Minced Garlic Sauce. Those are really tasty in a light gravy. Chinese Mushrooms with Chinese Green is also a good vegetable dish, but heavy on the Mushrooms (nice plump whole black mushrooms.)

I love Peking Express. (They're one of the few places in town to serve good tea, which is ironic, because dim sum houses are supposed to be about good tea, but alas, ours just don't get it.) It is by far the best place to get Peking Duck. However, in fairness, I should say that Chinese Gourmet Village in Hannah Plaza puts on a nice feast too. I don't have a review for them yet, but here's a link to their site and menu.

All of the dishes mentioned above, by the way, came from the chef's special menu, which is an insert in the regular menu. If your insert gets left out, don't settle for the General Tsao's Chicken and Beef Chow Mein. Get the good stuff.

Peking Express, 611 East Grand River Ave, East Lansing. 351-0533.

Recommended Reading:

I have a really good book on Peking Style cooking from Wei Chuan cooking school. Chinese Cuisine: Beijing Style The only problem is that Amazon lists this book as being in Chinese. Most Wei Chuan books are in both Chinese and English, and I have a copy of this that has everything in both languages, so this is probably in both, but be prepared if you order it.

On the other hand Chinese Cuisine: Shanghai Styles is another great Wei Chuan book with similar flavors and styles, and Amazon even says it's in English.


Erich Zechar said...

I've never tried Peking Duck before, but this gives me a good reason to have friends come together and try it. How many people did you have in your party?

The East Side Food Geek said...

We went with five this time. If you have more than seven or eight, you might consider more than one duck. (Just remember that a duck is equivalent to about 2 1/2 to 3 dishes, depending on appetites.) Usually if we have eight, we get two ducks, but that's because we have several duck fans in the larger group.

One dish I should have mentioned -- if you like the hoisin and mandarin pancake flavors and style, but you don't want to deal with a whole duck (or you're dining alone) Mu Shu Pork is another traditional dish that uses the pancakes (and has a lot of hoisin in the dish). We used to get Mu Shu Vegetables at Charlie Kang's all the time. I'm sure the Mu Shu variations here are really good, since the pancakes are so good.

Erich Zechar said...

Mu Shu is always my go-to order at a new Chinese place to gauge how I like the cook. Its similarity to Peking Duck is obvious, so it's surprising I've never actually gotten the duck.