Beijing Kao Ya Yay!

Nov 30, 2015

This time I turn to a dish that most of us felt that we knew well before we got here and then come to quickly realize that we don’t know the half of: Peking duck, or rather Beijing Kao Ya. Pretty much every Chinese take-away or restaurant at home sells a variant of this classic dish. My own local restaurant in Ryde, IOW, calls it ‘crispy aromatic duck.’ It comes shredded and seemingly deep fried for that crisp texture and is accompanied by cucumber, shredded spring roll and hoisin sauce, all wrapped up in little pancakes. I order it nearly every time. A whole duck costs a whopping £33, or around 330 RMB.

Somehow, it took me more than two years of living in China before finding myself being able to test Ryde Hong Kong Express’ authenticity.  Our venue is the 7th floor food hall of the Shin Kong mall, opposite the Hyatt Regency on the north side of Times Square. Amongst the pizza, dumpling and noodle outlets there is a counter that concentrates on selling whole Beijing duck. We took the plunge.

First, you find a table in the communal eating area, which can be a bit of a mission at peak times. When the duck is ready – around 30 or forty minutes after ordering - a couple of young chefs pull a trolley festooned with goodies alongside you. As is tradition, the duck is carved in front of you and served in two ways. To begin with, there is a small plate of crispy skin on which you sprinkle sugar. I said I would give this a miss but under encouragement from my more adventurous other half, gave it a try and it was delicious: crispy, slightly oily, with a sweet BBQ flavour. A luxurious little morsel.

The main event is a plate of boneless breast meat, with a strip of fat running along the top. Next to this is placed the duck’s head. We were not sure what to do with this and so we left it – neither of us is that adventurous! Accompanying the duck are pancakes, strips of cucumber, spring onion and radish and two bowls of hoisin sauce. Much like in Ryde.

So, how was it? Awesome! The duck is not crispy at all and is melt-in-the-mouth tender. The ingredients, when wrapped in the (far superior to the ones at home) pancakes, make an irresistible combination of sweet and savoury flavours with a soft and crunchy texture. Making the pancakes in the right balance is a bit of a skill and your final efforts will be better than your first. But no matter, there are plenty of pancakes and meat to practice on.

Personally, I like to reward my pancake building efforts with a brew and Shin Kong accommodates this with a well stocked bar area. They even had ice-cold Stella on tap, which is always a welcome sight. And how much are all of these culinary delights? A fantastic 138 RMB for the whole duck and 25 RMB for a draught of Stella. For an extra 38 RMB the remainder of the unused duck meat, of which there is actually quite a lot, is prepared in a box for you to take home.

Since then I have visited Beijing and had an even better version. That was in Siu Lan restaurant, downtown on Wang Fu Jing street, opposite the Peninsula hotel. But don’t let that put you off trying out the convenient and wonderful offering in Shin Kong.

To give you a tiny bit of background, this fabulous dish can be traced back to the early 14th century but was not really perfected until the later Ming Dynasty and was almost exclusively served to the royal family. It gained popularity in the west after it was served to Henry Kissinger by Zhou Enlai during a state visit and Kissinger extolled its virtues.

Having enjoyed it often here now, it probably won’t be on the menu when I am next in Ryde. It’s not that the UK version is bad exactly; it is just that it is so similar whilst being so different, as if the meal had been described over the phone, without the chef ever having actually tasted the real thing. Maybe a similar phenomenon helps explain the ‘not quite right’ nature of many of the western dishes that are served here in China.

About the Column

Markus Davis

Markus is from the Isle of Wight in the UK and had been living in Suzhou since 2013. It is his first time living in China and before this he was in London. He has been teaching English all of his adult life and in HE since 2000. He is lucky to have his wife with him in Suzhou and together they are making a new life. His interests include eating out (a lot) and exploring local areas on his ebike. And recently, walking a doggie.

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