Growing up, I took Chinese poultry for granted. It wasn't until I was older that I started to wonder how chefs managed such marvelous dishes. The more I thought about it, the more magical it all seemed.
Beijing roast duck is the master of contrast. Taste-wise, it manages both sweet and savory notes. Texture-wise, it's soft on the inside with a crispy exterior. The meat is smoky, tender, and held together -- miraculously -- by a maltose glaze and crisped skin. Compare that to the Nanjing approach to duck or the Sichuan version. The former is salted and served cool and the latter is smoked with the finest green tea leaves.
The Chinese approach to poultry is unbelievably diverse and a bird will face completely different culinary fates depending on who's preparing it. Here in Los Angeles, we're lucky to access a plethora of regional styles.
Here's a guide:
Beijing duck, a favorite of Henry Kissenger, is undoubtedly the most famous poultry dish from China. It's the national dish and its roots go back to Imperial China. The skin is crisp and glazed with maltose, a fermented syrup, and underneath -- dark meat that's tenderized by its own juices and a sweet marinade. The duck is traditionally carved table-side and served on a paper-thin wheat pancake. A heap of sweet bean sauce and a sprinkling of cucumber and spring onion slices are thrown in for garnish. While there are a handful of Beijing duck specialists in the greater Los Angeles area, Tasty Duck is a personal favorite of mine simply because they don't skimp out on the meat. Tip: go fancy and pair it with an order of eel over sticky rice. Tasty Duck, 1039 E Valley Blvd, San Gabriel, CA 91776.
Hainan chicken's reach is international and these days, most commonly associated with Singapore. It did initially come from Wenchang in Hainan and so for that reason, it can be considered a regional Chinese dish. Conceptually, it's rather simple. Hainan chicken is poached in chicken broth and served with a scallion-ginger sauce with a side of rice infused with chicken aromas. It's most popular at Savoy Kitchen. Their much-revered chicken is served bone-on and poached with three dipping sauces (ginger-scallion, garlic-chili, and dark soy) paired with a generous serving of chicken-infused rice. The dish starts at $6.95 and it's two dollars extra for dark meat chicken. Savoy Kitchen; 138 E Valley Blvd, Alhambra, CA 91801.
Cantonese Roast Duck
Cantonese roast duck is often confused with its northern cousin from Beijing. And although they sport a similar hue -- the differences are vast. For one, Cantonese roast duck is sweeter and the emphasis is more on the meat than it is on the skin. While Cantonese duck is also brushed with a maltose glaze, the final product is much juicier than its northern counterpart. Beijing duck is typically drier and denser. Cantonese duck retains more moisture because it's roasted with a marinade inside. It's sweet and juicy -- ideal over a piping bowl of warm rice. For this speciality, Sam Woo is your best bet. They are the king of Chinese barbecue in the Los Angeles area and have been around since 1979. Their Alhambra location goes through 40 chickens, five pigs, and over 80 ducks per day. Sam Woo; 514 W Valley Blvd, Alhambra, CA 91803.
Nanjing Salted Duck
Nanjing duck is terribly underrated. Its preparation method is arguably much more intensive than Beijing duck, yet it gets far less press. The duck is marinated in a heavy salt and Sichuan peppercorn mix for 48 hours, then bathed in an ice cold bath just before it's ready to be cooked. It's then boiled in an herbal broth, marinated in that very broth overnight and then cooled again. The result: an extremely flavorful bird that comes out ghastly white and wonderfully briny. No extra sauce is ever needed; the bird holds its own very well at this point. Nanjing Kitchen is place to go if you want this specialty item. Ducks are sold whole or in halves. Nanjing Kitchen; 706 W Las Tunas Dr # 5, San Gabriel, CA 91776.
Called zhangcha duck in Chinese, this is a classic Sichuan dish that's popular at banquets. You can distinguish the smell of the fragrant poultry dish from its smoky scent. This dish takes seven days to prepare. How it's done: the duck is marinated in a blend of pepper, ginger, garlic, Chinese wine, and salt and then smoked over black tea leaves and camphor twigs. Lastly it's deep-fried in vegetable oil for the crisp texture. Chengdu Taste prepares this duck well and serves it with freshly steamed buns. Only a limited number of these are served each day. Chengdu Taste; 828 W Valley Blvd, Alhambra, CA 91803.