Information: banquet dishes

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ALTHOUGH many Chinese banquet dishes are within the range of the home cook, several are not often prepared at home because they demand special skills and facilities. These include shark's fin and bird's nest soups, Winter Melon Pond and Peking Duck.

Shark's fin soup, for example, requires particular culinary skills to produce a dish which is creamy, yet not heavy; rich in fragrance, yet still mild; with the shark's fin soft and gelatinous, but not completely dissolved. Bird's nest soup, made with one of the rarest and most expensive of Chinese ingredients, must also be delicately prepared and served in a festive setting to match its rarity. Winter Melon Pond (a soup cooked right in the melon itself) poses physical rather than culinary problems. The melon's cumbersome size requires expansive stove facilities, and a strong back is needed to transfer the melon's great weight to the table when the soup is done.

The most demanding of all is Peking Duck. Considered one of the greatest Chinese dishes and the high point of every Peking banquet, it calls for special cooking facilities and training on the part of the cook. It also calls for a specific breed of duck, known as Imperial Peking.

In China, students of the Peking cuisine were required to take a one-year course devoted exclusively to the art of preparing Peking Duck. In addition to mastering the actual cooking techniques, they learned to raise and fatten the birds: the ducks were force-fed and housed in small cages to keep them inactive so that they would be plump and tender. The apprentice cooks also learned to slaughter and dress the ducks: the heads and necks had to be intact and the birds wet-dressed (plucked, singed and drawn while freshly killed), with the innards carefully removed so that the skin remained smooth and unbroken.

Peking Duck has no peer among barbecued ducks. Its skin is uniquely crisp, fragrant, glistening and golden. The secret of the skin's special quality is air--air which is forced or pumped between the skin and meat of the breast before roasting. This air, introduced through a shallow cut made in the side of the neck, is blown under the skin until the entire duck is inflated. Originally this was done directly or through a paper straw; now mechanical blowers are used. (The bird's neck is tightly tied with string and the bottom opening sewn or sealed to prevent the air's escape.) The inflated duck is next scalded with boiling water, brushed with a malt-sugar or honey syrup and hung up to dry in a cool, airy place until its skin is quite hard. (Under ideal conditions and at controlled room temperatures, this drying process takes about 24 hours.) The duck is then suspended vertically in a special cylindrical pit made of brick or concrete, or in a heavy insulated restaurant-type barbecue box. It is roasted overmoderate heat until glistening and golden.

The skin, which is the primary delicacy, is cut from the duck in small squares or rectangles and either arranged on a serving platter or placed back on the duck in its original form. It is eaten immediately after roasting, while still hot and crisp (accompanied by steamed buns and small, thin, flat wheatcakes called Peking doilies; and by scallions and a dip, usually hoisin sauce). The tender meat, which is of secondary interest, is cut up and served later in the banquet as a separate dish, or else eaten at another meal entirely.

From <The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook>, ISBN 0-517-65870-4. Downloaded from Glen's MM Recipe Archive, .

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