My mother was born, and spent much of her youth living, in Hong Kong. Thus, many of our family recipes are asian dishes. When my mother moved to Canada back in the early 60’s there was not a whole lot of good chinese food available. Fortunately, we had a thriving Chinatown so the ingredients could be found with a bit of effort (these days, our multicultural city boasts some of the best Asian dining outside of Asia itself, and many “exotic” ingredients are available in local, commercial supermarkets), but it necessitated her learning how to make all her favorite dishes. She became, like her mother before her, an excellent cook. And because her father and my father were British, she also became fluent in the preparation of such yummies as Roast Beef with Yorkshire Pudding, bangers and mash, etc. However, she never did take on the North American penchant for the Holiday Turkey. So instead, she developed a special recipe, her own version of Peking Duck.
Some of you may have had Peking Duck in a Chinese restaurant: usually you have to give them 24 hours notice if you are going to order it, though some fancier establishments keep the specially roasted duck on hand at all times. The traditional way to serve this dish is to start with a soup made from the duck carcass, followed by a plate of crispy, roasted duck skin. The skin is cut up into rectangles and served with “pancakes” – a sort of dry, soft tortilla-like crepe about six inches in diameter, with a mild taste of sesame oil. On the pancakes is spread a mixture of Hoi Sin sauce (a sweet, barbeque-like sauce) and honey (to make it even sweeter), then a sprig of green onion is added, a couple peices of duck skin, and then it is rolled up like a tiny burrito. Generally, you get two to four pancakes each. Then the flesh of the duck is served, usually stir-fried with vegetables and rice, as the main course.
Well, in our family it’s all about the pancakes. We make about one hundred pancakes, and the duck is served whole. We eat both the skin and the meat with the pancakes, and stuff ourselves silly. It is by far the most delicious meal I have ever eaten, and is my number one favorite. This is “last request” food, to be sure.
What is even nicer about our Peking Duck is that the preparation takes a couple of days, and the whole family participates. You begin by selecting a couple of nice ducks – we usually get frozen ones, but this year Mum got them fresh (plucked and gutted, of course). The first step is to hang the ducks. That’s right, you tie some kitchen string around the duck, under the wings, and hang it from a convenient place – usually the handle of an upper kitchen cabinet – and place a dish underneath to catch the drippings. You do this on the morning of the day before you plan to eat it. In the days of my youth, when we had friends over for Christmas, Mum would make four whole ducks (she had a huge, double oven as well). These days we use two. The ducks hang there for about 36 hours, all the while drying out. This is important – you want the skin to get very crispy, and you do that by making sure it is dry. On the day of the Feast, the ducks are dipped into a solution of ginger, honey, and spring onion every couple of hours. This adds a touch of “sticky sweetness” to the flavour. Finally, a couple of hours before dinner time, the ducks are put into the oven and roasted.
The Making of the Pancakes is also a well-loved tradition in our family. The secret is to get them thin, and that requires a rolling pin and a good lot of muscle, so it sort of became a role for the Man of the House. I don’t have any memories of my father making them (my folks divorced when I was 5), but when my mother remarried 7 years later my stepfather was taught how to make them, an honour that was probably more significant than the wedding, lol. When my brother was a teenager, he learned as well, and took over the duty when my stepfather got sick with cancer. The role of pancake-maker became even more solemn and honorable when first my stepfather died, and then 3 years later my brother died. By that time I had a long-term boyfriend, and he was recruited to do the pancakes (apparently, he didn’t appreciate the significance too much as he dumped me a couple years later). For Christmas 2000 the baton was passed on to DH, who did appreciate the honour and reciprocated with a wedding proposal the following Valentine’s Day. He’s been doing them ever since.
Mum makes the dough: just flour and water and a dash of salt. It is given a good kneading, then a good rolling, and then a cookie-cutter is used to make about 100 three-inch circles with scalloped edges. The women take these in twos and “glue” them together with a brush dipped in sesame oil. This “sandwich” is then handed back to The Man, who rolls each one as thin as can be. Each is then placed on a hot, dry pan: and Magic happens! As the oil between the two layers heats up, it forms an air bubble. The bubble gets bigger until it breaks through the side, at which point you can separate the two, now paper thin, pancakes (this requires delicacy, as the escaping steam can singe your fingers). These are stacked on a plate to cool, then either frozen or put in the fridge. On the day of the Feast, they are steamed in a giant, metal double boiler, until they are soft and pliable. We generally end up with about 100. It is an assembly line, of sorts, that the whole family can participate in. It is my favorite part of the holidays (besides eating them!).
There’s something about the ritual of making Peking Duck that has proven to be the one stability in a family that has changed alot over the years. Once, we were four, then three, then it was just me and Mum. Along came DH and a Man was back in the pancake making business. Now, with our two children, the assembly line has a few more willing pairs of hands. I suppose this is our own little Circle of Life, and it makes my heart both sad and joyful to see my Mother in the kitchen, surrounded by a family of helpers once more.
Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, and Blessings in whatever way your family celebrates them!