We’re feasting on duck for the Dragon New Year.
Lesley’s eager to get together for a Peking Duck dinner. “Let’s celebrate Chinese new year early!” She suggests excitedly. I love eating with my Chinese friends: all are avid food lovers and I always learn something new about their multi-faceted food traditions.
Tonight is no exception. This coming new year for the Chinese is an especially auspicious one as it’s the Year of the (Water) Dragon, the only Zodiac in Chinese astrology based on myth. It symbolizes reverence, power, and superiority and tonight, good eating for our party of five.
We’re at Summer Palace, the premier Chinese restaurant of the EDSA Shangri-La Hotel, also my establishment of choice for a spectacular dimsum brunch. It’s special because for a limited time, the restaurant is featuring Master Chef Yuan Chaoying of Shangri-La’s Kerry Hotel in Beijing. He worked for two decades at Beijing’s renowned Quanjude, a 200-year old restaurant specializing in Peking duck.
But first, the appetizers. EDSA Shangri-La’s Executive Chef Tony Sum has specially prepared an appetizer set for us. I’ve met him on previous occasions and I comment on how good his Tagalog is now. It’s a charming mix of Tagalog and English spoken in a heavily-accented Chinese timbre. He grins and makes a self-effacing gesture. Lesley, who also knows him well and knows all too well of his penchant for overfeeding people, gently tells him not to serve us too much. “Ah, I not cook too much but must be busog when leave here, okay?” Chef Tony says before excusing himself to get to the kitchen.
A dimsum quartet is presented on a flattened oval plate. The various heights at which each little dish is proffered highlights the individual hues and textures. A crabstick’s orange exterior gleams through its translucent wrapper, its vibrant tinge picked up by a jaunty carrot top. It’s a meaty, tastes-of-the-sea starter.
The salmon skin cracker is a straightforward crackling that perks up the taste buds when pressed first into the accompanying vinegar sauce, and there’s something so delightful about food that “talks back” when bitten into. All around the table, one crrrunch! follows another.
Misleadingly simple, chunks of fresh pomelo lie unassumingly at the bottom of a shot glass. Laced with a slightly green-hued mayonnaise bejeweled by diced mango and caviar, I’m expecting a creamy though benign combination. When all components are eaten in conjunction however, there’s the creaminess alright but with a whip of wasabi at the end. It’s so unexpected and thrilling that I giggle. Lesley’s just taken a spoonful too and her reaction mirrors mine.
My Bin adores the mushroom in eggplant, again, a deceptively innocent name for something so beguiling. Thick shiitake mushrooms and slices of eggplant are cradled in a crunchy coating then bathed and baked in a cheese sauce. A flurry of tastes fills every bite: meaty-sweet, soft-crispy – I see now, it makes sense. Eggplant and mushroom share similar textural characteristics, and together they hit the palate’s every pleasure center. To cleanse in between, we sup on chrysanthemum tea in china cups and sip tall glasses of Prosecco.
“Ooh look, they’re wheeling the duck out now!” Ouie announces. Chef Yuan Chaoying, clad in black, and his assistant in white, work in comfortable cadence, a rhythm honed by hundreds of repetitions. The burnished duck, its skin the crown jewel, is sliced according to precise ritual, 1¼ x 1½ inches. There’s some meat attached too, quickly dispatched into a wrapper touched by sauce and topped with the traditional accompaniments.
The preparation of Peking Duck is complex and involved, there are restaurants such as that of Quanjude’s that have entire kitchens devoted to the process. Air is pumped into the bird’s skin to encourage it to swell outwards and its interior is stuffed with spring onions, ginger, celery, and sesame oil. It’s then hung up to air-dry and coated with honey and flour before being roasted.
We’re all aglow as the plate of Peking duck pancakes is placed before us. Hidden in the folds of the floury pancake, the duck skin peers out like quarry shielded by spears of cucumber and leaves of leeks. Surprisingly, the meat and skin especially, is softer than what I’m used to, as is the pancake, made in-house by Chef Yuan Chaoying. The biggest difference is the dipping sauce, usually a dark mahogany bordering on black. This time, made by the visiting chef, it’s much lighter, similar in hue to an Indonesian satay sauce; it’s saltier, not as sweet, possessing a noticeable peanutty nuance. The whole effect – duck, veggies, wrapper, sauce – is a soft and elegant echo of the crispy, sweeter-sauced Peking duck I’ve eaten previously in Peking Garden or Choi Garden. I hear my dinner companions’ restrained sighs of satisfaction, outbursts would be out of place here, surely.
One way, two way.
The duck is also served a second way, minced and sautéed with vegetables and plum sauce, rounds of lettuce serving as edible receptacles. For variety, there’s a bowl of Fried Soft Shell Crab with Eggplant and Pork Floss. Amusingly, it looks like a wig of flaxen curls but the ingredients are a unique composition with a theme of crunch all throughout.
The thrum and din of the restaurant is dwindling in the late hour as dessert makes its way to our sufficiently sated and happy party. A Shanghai pancake’s crusty layers are filled with sweet red bean, its heat contrasting marvelously with the cool suaveness of the black sesame ice cream. It’s much too small a serving even after such a large meal but sometimes even I recognize that wanting more ensures a return trip later on.
Peking Duck Perfection
January 10 to 14, 2012
Lunch and dinner
2 sets of 11-course meals available for parties of 10.
Peking Duck is also available a la carte:
1 way (P3,300); 2 way (P3,600).
Dim Sum Appetizer Platter (P380)
Fried Soft Shell Crab with Eggplant and Pork Floss (P670)
EDSA Shangri-La, Manila.
For reservations, 633.8888 ext. 2777 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.