CHINESE folklore says that the first cooked food eaten by man was the result of a fortuitous accident, when a suckling pig was caught in the conflagration of a crude thatched hut. As the unhappy family members gathered around the smoldering ruins of their home, they were cheered by the fragrance of roasting pork. Enjoying the taste so much, according to the most wry version of the tale, they repeated the accident as frequently as possible. After many such feasts, the wife, weary from rebuilding so often, said, "Why must we always burn down the house? Couldn't we just build a fire in the yard?"

The tradition of Chinese barbecue was born.

No cook can long be satisfied with utter simplicity, and so as time went on a sliver of garlic, a smidgen of salt and a sprinkle of herbs were added. After that, hoisin, honey, soy and five-spice powder made a lively basting sauce. In time the suckling pigs gave way to racks of spareribs, ducks and fat hens.

Today the popularity of Chinese barbecue lives on. It has remained one of the most favored cooking methods in this cuisine. In San Francisco's Chinatown, shop windows are filled with the glistening bodies of Peking ducks and rich, red-brown barbecued spareribs. Hong Kong's teeming back alleys have similar displays, with ducks and pork hung out in the open air, their fragrant aroma tempting passersby.

Chinese barbecue has gone through three stages of equipment. The original open fires out in the yard were replaced by large cast-iron cylindrical ovens, with a grate and openings at the bottom for supplying air to the charcoal fire that provided heat. (Charcoal is more efficient and burns hotter than the wood it is made from. It was invented by the Chinese, who probably created it specifically for cooking.) The food to be cooked was hung inside the cylinder, where the heat absorbed by the iron slowly roasted it to a golden tone. Today the gas oven takes the place of the charcoal oven. Its constant, even heat is reliable and cooks the meat perfectly, although it lacks the flavor added by the charcoal.

The old cast-iron ovens worked in much the same manner as our covered charcoal grills do today. So we have the happy choice of using either the kitchen oven or the charcoal grill to make authentic Chinese barbecue.

According to Chef Duck Chang, the proprietor of Duck Chang's in Annandale, any Chinese dish that is cooked in an oven can be considered barbecue. He includes roast pork, barbecued spareribs, crispy roast chicken, and several kinds of duck, including the Peking duck that his family has been making for more than 300 years. Suckling pig is still served for special occasions, and travelers in the Far East report being offered tiny sparrows cooked on an open grill.

No barbecued dish offers the home cook more challenge than Peking duck. The original cooking method was so difficult and time-consuming that only expert chefs are able to produce the thin crisp skin, the moist fragarant meat and the perfect golden color.

For true perfection, Chang says, his family raised the ducks themselves to the ideal five pounds. The ducks were killed and plucked very gently so the skin remained unpierced and intact. Internal organs were removed through a tiny hole made under a wing. The skin was inflated with a pump to loosen it from the meat and to begin the breakdown of the fat. Then the duck was plunged into a mixture of water, honey and wine that was carefully balanced according to the season of the year and the amount of moisture in the air--a procedure requiring a knowledge gained by roasting thousands of ducks in all kinds of weather. Then the duck was hung in a breezy spot to dry for six to 12 hours. It was then hung by the neck inside the oven, which needed special tending to arrive at the perfect temperature for the ducks to cook slowly to a rosy, golden brown on the outside and moist doneness inside. Each duck was turned and adjusted periodically in the oven so that the skin browned perfectly all over.

No home cook can aspire to suchperfection, but technology and ingenuity can help produce an acceptable home-style version.

The Peking-style suckling pig is prepared in much the same manner as the duck. These tiny piglets weigh no more than 12 pounds and still have a very tender skin when treated to the same cooking techniques as the ducklings. Both pigs and ducks are served with thin flour pancakes, scallions and hoisin sauce. The skin is served first and the meat is served separately.

As for those wonderful spareribs and thin strips of red roast pork, the secret is a sauce that is a blend of hoisin sauce, soy, honey, garlic, ginger and five-spice powder. It is used as a marinade and as a basting liquid, and sometimes even as a sauce to pour over the meat. In fact, there are recipes in Chinese cookbooks for dishes such as barbecued bean curd that are not really barbecued but are stir-fried in barbecue sauce. Be wary of buying prepared barbecue sauce. It's never as good as the mixture you make yourself, and often contains ground krillfish, which gives it a strong, fishy taste.

Since this is the year of the pig, it seems quite appropriate to serve one, Peking-style.

Suckling pigs are available at the French Market, Sutton Place Gourmet, Giant's Someplace Special and Safeway International. Plan to buy it at least two days ahead of time. BARBECUED SUCKLING PIG (6 to 10 servings) 8- to 12-pound suckling pig Marinade: 1/4 cup honey 1/4 cup hoisin sauce 1/4 cup rice wine (substitute dry sherry) 1/4 cup sesame paste (or toast and grind your own) 1/4 cup minced scallions 1/4 cup soy sauce 1 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon 5-spice powder 6 cloves garlic, mashed Water treatment: 4 quarts boiling water 1 cup honey 1 cup red rice vinegar (substitute Japanese rice vinegar) Garnishes: 24 Peking pancakes 2 bunches scallions cut in slivers 1 cup hoisin sauce

Wash the piglet well, inside and out. Shave any hairs that remain and scrub the skin with a brush. Wash inside the mouth and snout. Dry with a towel. Place the piglet on a dry towel and place on a baking pan. Place the uncovered pig in the refrigerator for 2 hours. Prepare the marinade and the water treatment by mixing the ingredients. After 2 hours remove the pig from the refrigerator and place it on a baking rack in the sink. Bring the water treatment to a boil and ladle it over the skin of the pig. When all of the water has been used, dry the pig with a towel. Turn the pig over and rub the marinade inside the body. The marinade should not touch the skin. Use chopsticks to wedge the front legs and the back lags apart. Use skewers to close the body cavity (string laced between the skewers will hold it tightly closed). Arrange the piglet on a baking sheet in the position it is to be cooked in. Return to refrigerator, uncovered, and allow to dry for 24 hours. The skin will darken.

If you are roasting the pig on an outdoor covered grill, find a baking pan about the size of the pig to catch the drippings. Build a fire in the grill, and when the coals are red-hot pull them to the sides and place the pan in the center. Bank the coals around the pan. Place the pig on the grill over the pan and cover with the lid. Adjust the dampers to allow a flow of air. Roast for 15 minutes per pound or until an internal thermometer reads 165 degrees at all places it is inserted. You may need to add coals to keep the fire going. If the pig is not as crisp as you would like (it should be quite crisp), place it in a 450-degree oven for 10 minutes.

If you are roasting the pig in the oven, leave it on the baking pan and place in a 425-degrees oven for 20 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 325 degrees and continue roasting for an additional 40 minutes. Check the internal temperature as above. Just before serving, reheat at 450 degrees for 10 minutes.

Place the entire pig on a platter and serve with steamed pancakes. These may be purchased at Chinese grocery stores or made by following the recipe in a Chinese cookbook. Serve also with scallions and hoisin sauce. Each guest will spread hoisin on his pancake, add a few slivers of scallion and a piece of crisp skin, then roll it up and eat it by hand. Next the meat is served, with fresh pancakes and perhaps a stir-fried vegetable on the side (snow peas with mushrooms would be good). Finish the meal with well-chilled lichee fruit and plum wine. CHINESE BARBECUE SAUCE 1/4 cup hoisin 1/4 cup honey 1/4 cup rice wine 2 cloves garlic 2 tablespoons grated ginger 2 teaspoons salt 1 tablespoon soy sauce Red food color (optional) 1/4 teaspoon 5-spice powder

Mix all of the ingredients and use as a marinade. After using it may be saved for use again if brought to a boil and then frozen. Chinese restaurants make huge batches and use several times. CHINESE ROAST PORK 1 recipe barbecue sauce (recipe above) 2 pounds lean pork, cut in 2-by-2-by-4-inch strips

Marinate the pork for at least 18 hours. Remove from the marinade and use your hands to squeeze off most of the barbecue sauce. Make hooks from heavy-duty paper clips by opening them to form an S shape. Using the clips, hang the pork pieces from the top rack of the oven and roast at 325 degrees. Place a pan on the bottom rack and add 2 cups of water to it. This catches the drips and creates moisture in the oven. Roast for 45 minutes. Take the largest piece from the oven and make a slash in it. There should be no bloody juices, but a pink color from the marinade is normal. Chinese roast pork is served cold, sliced thin, as an opening dish and is used in a variety of dishes, such as barbecued pork buns or stir-fried roast pork and broccoli. BARBECUED CHINESE SPARERIBS 1 recipe Chinese barbecue sauce (recipe above) 5 pounds meaty spareribs 1/4 cup honey 1 1/2 cups water

Trim off any excess fat on the spareribs. Marinate them in the barbecue sauce for at least 12 hours. When it's time to cook the ribs, remove most of the marinade with your hands. Mix the honey and water and brush it on the ribs. Use paper clips to make S-shaped hooks and use as many as necessary to hang the ribs from the top rack of your oven. Place a shallow baking sheet with water in the bottom of the oven to catch the drips and keep them from burning. Bake the ribs in the oven for 40 minutes at 250 degrees; then turn the heat up to 350 degrees and cook for another 20 minutes.

If you prefer to roast the ribs in a covered barbecue grill, place a baking pan in the center of the grate and heap the hot coals around it. This will assure that the grease from the ribs drips into the pan and does not cause the fire to scorch the ribs. Cooking time will depend on how hot the fire is. The ribs are done when cooked through and crispy on the outside but still moist inside. This should take at least 45 minutes. MODERN PEKING DUCK (6 servings) 5-pound Long Island duckling 1 teaspoon ground sichuan pepper 2 gallons boiling water 1 cup honey 1 cup rice wine 9 cups water 2 bunches scallions 1 cup hoisin sauce 12 Peking pancakes, steamed 1 or 2 metal meat hooks or a Spanek vertical roaster (available at kitchen stores)

Wash the duck and trim off the last two wing joints and any excess neck skin. Wash and dry the duck. Grind the sichuan pepper in a pepper grinder and rub it into the skin and on the inside. Allow the duck to sit at room temperature for an hour. During this hour, measure your oven: Put the meat hooks into the neck of the duck and hang it from the top rack of the oven to test the fit. There should be room for a pan to catch the drips. If not, you might want to use a vertical roaster that holds the duck upright in the oven. Or slide the duck over the center insert from a springform angel-food cake pan and place in a baking pan.

If all else fails, the duck may be roasted on a rack set in a baking pan. This usually results in some less-than-crisp skin on the back and sides of the duck.

Bring the 2 gallons of water to a boil and place the duck in the kitchen sink, leaving the drain open. Pour boiling water over the breast, turn the duck and pour more water over the back. Keep turning and pouring until all the duck skin has been treated. Mix the 9 cups water, honey and rice wine and bring it to a boil. Pour it over the duck, being sure to cover every part of the duck. Dry the duck with a towel and place on a rack in a pan. Put the duck in your refrigerator, uncovered, for 48 hours. This will dry the skin. Or you can do as the Chinese do and hang the duck by its neck in front of a fan for 6 hours (be sure to place a bowl under the duck as it will drip during that time). How quickly the duck dries depends very much on the moisture in the air. It may be best to dry your duck someplace other than the kitchen, since moisture created from cooking will slow the drying process. During cold winter weather, an enclosed back porch or garage may provide temperatures as cool as your refrigerator.

Once the skin of the duck is dry and dark-looking, it is ready for roasting. If the duck is to hang from the top rack, place a drip pan on the bottom rack. Put the duck in the oven and roast at 425 degrees for 25 minutes; then reduce the temperature to 350 degrees and cook another hour. Test for doneness with an instant-reading thermometer. It should read 180 degrees. If the skin is not very, very crisp, raise the temperature to 450 degrees and cook for an additional 5 to 10 minutes.

Serve with pancakes, slivered scallions and hoisin sauce.

Duck Chang recommends using a five-pound duckling for this dish: "Smaller ducks become too dry before the skin is crisp, and larger ducks need to cook too long and the skin is too dark." And of course a fresh duck is better than frozen. "Rub a little ground Sichuan pepper on the skin and inside the duck. This makes it smell and taste wonderful."

Drying is important, too, he says. "If you want crisp skin, you must dry for five to six hours; 10 hours is even better." Inflating the duck and filling it with boiling water aren't necessary because gas ovens are more efficient than the original Chinese ovens.