Honey, I blew up the Duck
Growing up as a Chinese-American in Minnesota in the ‘70s was, at times, completely bizarre. First, there was the lack of clubs or organizations for people like us so we joined the Jewish Community Center and the Sons of Norway. Uff Da! Although we were exposed to Norwegian specialties like Krumkaka and Lutefisk at social gatherings, my mother always strived to re-create authentic Chinese dishes from her homeland, Guangzhou, China.
At the time, we were too immature to realize that my mother was a talented chef in her own right. All we wanted was Hamburger Helper and Tuna Casserole like all the other kids got to eat. It wasn’t until later in life, that we learned to appreciate the amazing dishes my mother placed on our table: whole steamed fish with garlic and black beans, Dim Sum folded with love and precision, Hong Kong Steak, Lobster with ginger and scallions to name a few. The piece de resistance, however, was Peking Duck which she served whenever we had company.
Most people familiar with the dish know that roast Peking ducks are usually found hanging in the windows at restaurants and delis throughout Chinatown. The reason they are hanging there is not necessarily to entice people in to the joint (however this is usually effective), but to let them air-dry. You see, the reason Peking Duck has such amazingly crisp skin is because the duck must be pumped with air like a balloon so that the skin can separate from the fat of the duck. Honey and vinegar is then poured over the duck. The duck has to hang dry for several hours before it’s ready to be roasted in the oven.
When we were little, we would help our mother blow up the ducks with my brother’s bicycle pump. Then she’d hang them in our window overlooking our driveway to dry with a fan blowing onto them. Neighborhood kids would often ride up and down our smoothly paved driveway on their shiny, new Schwinn bikes. Every once in a while, I’d catch one of those kids looking up in shock and horror at the sight of those ducks in our window. They’d ride away so fast and we always got a good laugh. It was one of those rare moments where I’d felt proud to be different and mysterious.
Today, we enjoy making my mother’s famous Peking Duck recipe for our friends. Just remember that you must secure the end of the duck very well, or you may end up with a farting duck as you pump it up. This, I learned the hard way at a recent demonstration I was giving. Bear this in mind along with warning the neighborhood kids!