Westerners used to call Peking the beautiful “city of lingering splendor” The walled city had broad avenues, lakes and palaces, tiled roofs, courtyard mansions and fairy-tale-like gardens. Years later, Peking was transformed when Communist leader Mao Zedong ordered the outer walls torn down to use the materials for air raid shelters.
Now, in the era of economic progress and reform, the city’s once graceful low skyline has disappeared, its wide avenues snarled with traffic.
My parents lived in Beijing in the early nineties. By then, Old Peking was elusive and one might find it at the Asian market set up along a tree-lined narrow street where old men with their caged pet birds sat on park benches and people swayed in unison in the stately motions of traditional Tai Chi exercise. Sometimes my parents would ride bikes through Beijing’s remaining hutongs – narrow lanes lined with ancient earthen walls where faded red gates offered a glimpse of ruined courtyard houses. But these old neighborhoods were (and still are) falling victim to the wrecker’s ball. In the book “Oracle Bones” by Peter Hessler he writes about China’s pace of development as so intense and fast that “most new buildings were completely undistinguished: quickly designed, cheaply built, badly finished.”
These new neighborhoods may not stand the test of time but I have no doubt that China and the Chinese themselves are indestructible; despite China’s race to modernize, many of the old ways have survived.
Case in point: the Imperial Peking Duck. It is just as prevalent now (if not more so) as it was during the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644). This duck breed was discovered by accident when grain being shipped by boat to Peking spilled out on the riverside and ducks began eating the rice. Peasants noticed how fat the ducks had become and began caging the birds and force-feeding them until they became plump and perfect for roasting. These ducks can weigh up to 12 pounds and are fatty. After the duck has been slaughtered, it is pumped with air to separate the skin from the fat. The duck is soaked in boiling water for a short time or boiling water is poured over it to tighten the skin and to look lustrous when cooked. It is then hung up to dry. The duck is coated in a mixture made with syrup and soy sauce. This makes the skin crispy and dark brown when roasted.
The skin of the duck is served on a separate platter. The rest of the meat is sliced and accompanied with thin pancakes, green onion, cucumber and plum, or hoisin sauce. One is to make a sort of burrito using the pancakes, greens, sauce and meat. The duck is eaten this way instead of with utensils. It’s absolutely delicious.
Other dishes are made from the rest of the duck. In true Chinese fashion, every part of the bird is eaten including, the heart, the feet and the tongue.
The Peking Duck has become a national symbol. It’s one part of old China that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.