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Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant

by Phil Groman

Among China's 1.3 billion people, there's one name that comes first to mind when the words "roast duck" are mentioned: Quanjude.

From the Taklamakan sands in Xinjiang to the lofty Tibetan plateau, this brand has it covered. There's even branches in the United States and Japan. Chairman Mao, George H.W. Bush, Fidel Castro, Yassar Arafat and even Pele have eaten in Quanjude's flagship Qianmen restaurant. So what is it that makes this traditional brand so special?

Well, it can't be the novelty yellow duck that greets you at the entrance. Nor can it be the feature film on the company's history, Peking Duck Restaurant-Famous Chefs Experience the Inconsistencies of Human Relationships. Or indeed the TV series, "Number One Restaurant under Heaven." So I guess it must have something to do with the ducks and Quanjude's skilled chefs.

Established in 1864, during the Qing Dynasty, Quanjude was the word's first restaurant to serve roast duck outside the Emperor's personal kitchen. In those days, the common man could not eat palace dishes. Legend has it that Yang Renquan, the first Quanjude manager, poached a retired chef from the palace, fiddled with the recipe slightly, and voila! roast duck was served to the eager masses from his small restaurant in Yangrou Hutong, just off Qianmen Dajie. About 115 million roasted ducks later, the original exterior wall still stands proudly at their expanded Qianmen restaurant, marking the entrance to a reconstructed section, complete with waiters attired in the Qing Dynasty style serving food with VIP prices to match. This branch, dubbed by the staff as Lao Ya (Old Duck), is now just one of many Quanjude restaurants in and around Beijing. Da Ya (Big Duck) refers to the seven storey megalith in Hepingmen, which caters to as many as 2,000 diners at a time and houses what must be the world's only roast-duck museum.
But, "What about the duck?" I hear you cry. Well, Quanjude Roast Duck is apparently unlike any other kind of Beijing roast duck. After basting in a secret concoction of sweetened sauces, the ducks are roasted in a "hanging fruit-tree" oven for up to 50 minutes. They come out looking golden brown and juicy. A chef will then delicately slice it up for you by your table, making sure each piece includes at least a sliver of the duck's crispy skin. The Chinese consider this the finest part of the duck. And even for the western palate, it does somehow manage to strike a divine balance between succulence and crunchiness. It seems the chefs are under strict orders to ensure that the skin melts in the mouth.

But, for me, it was always the duck dipping and pancake rolling ritual that appealed. Call me unrefined, but often the pre-ingestion action interests me more than the post-consumption sensory delights. So I was surprised to discover that what I had always considered the most Peking thing about Peking roast duck did not originate in Beijing at all. Apparently the whole pancake rolling practice is, in fact, a product of Shandong Province. I was speechless. Shandong Duck?

But before we go and change the names of duck restaurants worldwide, the good people at Quanjude politely informed me that once the imperial palace adopted the Shandong practice, changing it slightly to meet the demands of the emperor, it became as Beijing as the Temple of Heaven or spring sand storms. Indeed, ask the Chinese what a visit to the nation's capital should involve and they will tell you that two things must be achieved: One must climb the Great Wall and eat a roast duck at Quanjude. 
But what about the duck? You cry once again. There is no doubt about it, Quanjude Roast Duck is something special. I must have consumed the equivalent of a small extended family during my meal. And because it's so tender, it doesn't leave you bloated like other meats. The pancakes are thin enough to use as lamp shades, and as moist and delicious as I've ever tried. They even have the remarkable power of never splitting no matter how much they are stuffed, and Quanjude's dipping sauce is just sublime. It really is a gastronomic delight.

Yet, roast duck is certainly not the only thing on the menu. There's a duck dish for every occasion; tongues, livers, skin, gizzards, breasts, and, of course, the appetising duck-feet webs, which are actually a lot better than the minimalist chicken feet so favoured by many Chinese. And true to form, Quanjude has an exotic variety of non-duck dishes that characterise extravagant Chinese restaurants. Camel and deer meat are served up with turtles, seafood and a huge variety of fish. All the dishes are lovingly presented in a most palatial and magnificent of settings. The dining areas and private rooms are reason enough to visit one of the many Beijing branches.
So where does that leave us? Well, if it's roast duck you're after, Quanjude is the place. As for me, I'm off to track down the 1992 feature film and see if its worthy of a contemporary revival.