China's great duck rivalry: Beijing vs. Nanjing
Nanjing, the provincial capital of Jiangsu, is well-known in China for its tasty duck offerings. Local chefs produce soups, appetizers, main courses, pastries, snacks, dim sums and even travel souvenirs out of this livestock.
If the saucy, filling and theatrical Peking duck is typical of China’s northern fare, then Nanjing’s duck dishes are a good reflection of the palette of Chinese southerners. It's light and flavorful -- more of a nibble.
But which one is the most delicious? We’ve put the two cities’ ducks in a beak to beak face-off.
Round 1: Versatility
Nanjing chefs beat their Beijing counterparts with aplomb on this one.
The capital is most famous for its duck roasted over apple wood, but Nanjing can turn one duck into a wide variety of dishes.
Nanjing’s top billing is salted duck. The chef marinates the duck in salt, flower pepper and brine before boiling it in water and Chinese rice wine. It's served sliced.
Nanjingers can also pick up a sesame pastry made with duck fat as breakfast, order a basket of steamed soupy dumplings full of duck meat or down a bowl of duck-bone stock filled with deep-fried firm tofu, vermicelli noodles and thickened blood cubes for dinner.
“Nanjingers also eat roast duck,” says Nanjing-born chef Chen Hengbin, 46, who works for Nanjing Jinling Hotel on Hanzhong Road. Opened in 1983 as a state-run five-star hotel, Jinling Hotel’s salted duck has won praise from Chinese leaders such as Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin.
“Nanjing roast duck has crispy skin and tender meat, but it’s leaner than other roast ducks in China, probably due to the breed of duck in southern China,” adds Chen.
“When Nanjingers eat roast duck, we chop them up then pour over a light brown brine to make the meat more flavorful.”
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Round 2: Cultural acceptance
Peking duck is one of the most popular Chinese dishes in the world.
“Every time [my] foreign friends come to China, especially the capital, this must be one of the meals to be eaten in a restaurant, preferably one that is still in a hutong, and where the ducks are slow roasted with apple wood,” says Lawrence Lo, a Shanghai-based food and wine critic who has lived in China, Europe and United States.
This is because, unlike many other foods in China, Peking duck can be eaten largely without bones, tastes like the heavily sauced Chinese food served in the West and looks like a mini wrap.
Unlike most Chinese food, Peking duck is roasted, a technique usually only found in the West.
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In comparison, Nanjing’s duck dishes present more challenges for international diners. For one, the iconic salted duck contains bones, which Chinese like to suck on, and is eaten cold as an appetizer without extra condiments; while the duck blood soup contains bean-curd-like coagulated blood and duck organs.
Both tend to turn off customers who aren't from China.
“Eating poultry cold in the United States is typically something you do when you’re too lazy to reheat the leftovers,” says Kyle Gale, 28, an Arizonan who has lived in Nanjing since 2009.
Gale says Nanjing salted duck is more of an acquired taste.
“Nevertheless, these days I like Nanjing [salted] duck every bit as much as Peking roast duck.”
Round 3: Taste
Peking duck is a dream for meat lovers.
The skin is crispy and sometimes caramelized, the meat is tender, boneless and the hoisin sauce is sweet.
“We don’t cut open the ducks when we cook,” says Yau Shuiwing, 36, chef from a popular Beijing restaurant Duck de Chine.
“Instead, we cut a small hole to extract the organs, then pump in boiling water when we hang the ducks to roast. This way, we can achieve ultra delicious duck skin, which is the best part of a Peking duck, while keeping the meat juicy and soft.”
Nanjing’s symbolic duck dish of salted duck is even more tender than Peking duck and more meaty in flavor, but compared to the aromatic and golden brown roast duck, its looks don’t reflect its taste. To tourists who have never tried it, it might appear bland and under prepared.
“The crispy and roasted skin of Peking duck is visually more appealing than the plain white skin of the Nanjing kind,” says Lawrence Lo.
But Lo considers Nanjing salted duck a great snack to go with a bottle of cold beer.
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Round 4: Portability
Peking Duck is best eaten when it’s out-of-the-oven hot and aromatic. This makes it a great sit-down restaurant dish.
Although diners can easily find them in high-end restaurants and hotels, such as Jinling Hotel and InterContinental Nanjing, most of Nanjing’s duck dishes are great for quick bites. They’re convenient, hassle-free and extremely portable.
Diners on-the-go can shovel a duck-fat-sesame pastry or a few chunks of salted duck into any food container and they taste as good after an hour or two.
Smart Nanjingers have taken advantage of this and made salted duck a popular travel souvenir. Many supermarkets, retail stores and restaurants stock salted duck in portable and sealed vacuum packs.
They can be eaten directly from the pack or after a quick zap in the microwave.
Round 5: Entertainment value
To many, Peking duck’s draw lies in its dramatic dining experience, from watching a razzle-dazzle duck-cutting performance to making a duck wrap with their own hands.
This makes eating a plate of Peking duck as entertaining as it is delicious.
“Peking duck restaurants purposely allow chefs to cut the duck in the restaurant, where customers can see how the crispy duck is sliced,” says Lawrence Lo.
“Peking Duck is served with other trimmings, such as thin pancakes and well-known Hoisin sauce, which creates ‘theater’ in the dish,” adds Lo.
“In comparison, Nanjing duck dishes have no such theatrics.”
Final verdict: To international visitors, Peking duck still rules. And as the capital, Beijing dominates China’s international tourism scene.
But for anyone who wishes to appreciate the diversity of Chinese cuisine and explore what daily meals are like for ordinary Chinese, Nanjing’s salted duck, sesame pastries, duck blood soup and duck-meat dumplings are great starters.
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