A story circulating around Peking concerns an American tourist visiting one of the city's legendary duck restaurants.
The waiter explained each dish as he brought it to the American's table. "This is the breast of the duck." A few minutes later he was back. "This is the leg of the duck." The third time around, he announced he was serving the duck's wing.
When the waiter approached the table the fourth time, the American recognized that it was a plate of chicken. The waiter said nothing. After a long pause, the American finally asked what the dish was.
Said the waiter, "It's a friend of the duck."
In Peking, the duck has very few friends, but many admirers. When I was in China's capital city not long ago, I became one of them. Although American travelers often return from China with horror stories about the food in Peking, I had heard that the many Peking duck restaurants that populate the city are the exception to the rule. So I set out to feast my way through several of them in different areas of the city.
"You may have had New York duck, or Hong Kong duck," my local interpreter explained as we set out for dinner. "But tonight you will have the real thing."
At precisely 8 p.m., he led me down a dimly-lit street. There were no cars and few bicycles, but it was extremely noisy. Loud sounds were coming from open windows on the second, third and fourth floors of one of the older brick buildings. Inside, a few hundred Chinese were thoroughly enjoying their duck. There were five separate dining halls, and, with the exception of an Austrian diplomat and his family, I was the only Westerner.
This was the "Nationality" duck restaurant, and we feasted on duck wings, duck liver, shredded pork -- and, of course, Peking duck.
Dish after dish of duck and assorted vegetables were brought from the kitchen and placed on an over-sized Lazy Susan, as other waiters carrying bottles of local beer and carbonated orange drink started pouring. It was a non-stop exercise that continued literally until we got up to leave.
"Tonight is just like any other night," my guide explained. All through Peking, the duck restaurants were, well, cooking.
Peking Duck chefs are not by nature a talkative lot, so don't expect a beaming cook to rush out and regale you with his secret recipes. In fact, a number of the duck chefs refused to be interviewed, since the interview had not been officially arranged.
Luckily, the chef at the Nationality restaurant wanted to talk. He allowed me into the kitchen, where a team of eight cooks supervised more than two dozen sweating waiters, each hurrying in and out, shuttling more and more duck.
The Peking duck is distinguished by its golden brown skin and soft meat. But first, the chef explained, the bird must be categorized as a "stuffed duck." The ducks are specially reared just outside the city, -- force-fed with special cereals and mung beans but not allowed to grow fat. Before roasting the duck, the chef pumps air through its windpipe to separate the meat from the skin; then he pours hot water over the duck and coats the skin with molasses ("It brings out the glossiness," my guide interpreted). Next, the chef fills the duck's cavity with fresh water and puts the bird in the oven -- kept at between 230 and 250 degrees centigrade over a fire of date, peach and pear wood. At this temperature, the duck's skin is scorched, but the meat remains tender.
The chef opened the oven door. Inside were three rows of golden-brown ducks. "They are beautiful, yes?" my guide asked rhetorically. "Certainly," he exclaimed proudly, "it is an invitation to gluttony!" On any given night, 200 to 300 ducks become history there in the large ovens (but this restaurant by no means can claim an award for the most ducks served on any one evening in Peking).
The first roast duck restaurant in Peking opened in 1522. Its popularity grew, and within a few years there were more than 20 duck restaurants in the capital. Today, there are about four dozen in the city, and their popularity has not decreased in the last four centuries. In fact, reservations are tough to get -- almost impossible on short notice.
The 120-year-old "Bianyifang" duck restaurant is on Peking's busy Chongwenmen Street. Duck is served between 4:30 and 9 each night, and a large banquet costs about 20 yuan ($10) per person.
Most Peking Duck restaurants have special nicknames, and a regular and loyal following. There's the "Wall Street" (also called "Super Duck") with 41 dining rooms and a seating capacity of 2,500. Near the hospital, there's the "Sick Duck." But don't let its name turn you off. The nickname comes only from its location, on a small lane off Wang Fu Jing road leading to the Capital Hospital. A few blocks away, on Qianmen Road, is the Qianmen Roast Duck Restaurant. It is a towering building, always crowded, and is often called "Big Duck." It has another nickname as well. Service here is fast, almost impersonal, so -- not surprisingly -- the place has been given the folk title of "McDonald Duck" by the locals. Until recently, it was about as close as one could get to fast food in China.
But then four years ago, the official New China News Agency announced in Peking that fast-food noodle stands would spring up around China. The agency reported that the country would produce fast food so that city dwellers could "devote extra time to modernizing the nation's economy."
Since 1978, China has been producing fast food on an experimental basis. The fare includes noodles, rice and rice noodles, frozen dumplings stuffed with minced meat and vegetables. But the fast-food approach never accelerated until the recent introduction of the Donald Duck restaurant. The restaurant has been using the cartoon character's image without a license from the Walt Disney organization -- there is presently no copyright protection in China.
By noon each day the small establishment is packed with Chinese and foreigners, each group outfitted in distinctive Western-style dress. A menu in English and Chinese is printed above the cashier's booth. The prices are expensive, by Chinese standards: A hot dog costs one yuan (50 cents). A hamburger with fries goes for 60 cents. A fried chicken leg is at the top of the scale at $1.50. Other menu items are ham sandwiches, french toast and sweet and sour pork -- all served under the watchful eye of Donald Duck, whose brightly-lit likeness is everywhere inside the restaurant. Formica tables, plastic seats, trays, tables and silverware are ample, and a plastic grape "arbor" hangs from the ceiling. The Yili company, a state-owned food manufacturing firm (they make everything from canned goods to tasty local chocolate) owns the Donald Duck outlet, and more are planned.
This first location (off Xidan Street, the main shopping area, and down a small road called Rong-Xian Lane) is open from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m., especially late by Peking restaurant standards. And, although the restaurant had been operating only a short time when I was there, it was becoming a major success.
"Donald Duck is a boon for the single person in need of a meal at any hour of the day," wrote one reader of the influential China Daily newspaper. "And a big breakthrough is the unprecedented Peking scene of Chinese and foreign customers sitting side by side mutually enjoying an ice cream . . . at moderate cost."
That wasn't possible the day I went there. The ice-cream machine had just broken. I ordered a hamburger and fries. That was also impossible; so was the hot dog I asked for. While both were featured prominently on the menu, it seemed the Donald Duck folks hadn't yet gotten around to stocking them. One item very much on the menu -- and available -- was Coca-Cola. "We will have these other things very soon," my interpreter promised.
"I think it's great," says Ellen Hertz, 24, an American from Ithaca, N.Y., who works as a translator at the Foreign Languages Press in Peking. She ordered a tomato salad and a chicken leg -- to go, another innovation. "If you live here, you can understand how necessary it is to have someplace like this." It was also a nice place to visit -- yet another example of how much China is continuing to change.
But given the choice, I'll stay with the duck, thank you.