Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Steamed lotus duck with rice crumbs

If you are a fan of meats coated with a savory sauce, tossed in rice crumbs, and then steamed into sheer succulence, this is the dish for you. Unlike the spicy pork versions so popular in central China, this northern delight features duck breast seasoned with sweet wheat paste. 

An old Beijing cookbook I referred to when first making this says that "it originally had Hunan flavors," but by substituting sweet wheat paste for chili sauce, Beijing chefs successfully transplanted it from humid, heat-loving central China into the cold north.

Filling ready to be rolled up
As with just about every dish I introduce here, this too is extremely simple to make. Ingredients are tossed together, wrapped in a piece of dried lotus leaf, and steamed. And that is it.

The only thing that requires an extra step is if you want to make your own Rice Crumbs (zhengfen or "steam powder" in southern China and mifen "rice powder" in the north)  -- something I highly recommend -- but this is nothing more than dry frying raw rice with a couple of spices and then pulverizing them. However, if you want to save some time, commercial rice crumbs are available in many Chinese markets (see Tips).

Lotus leaves are easy to use and are not only beautiful, but they lend a subtle fragrance. They keep for months (if not years) when stored properly, and are handy whenever you want to lend an additional bit of exoticism and tropical flair to your dishes.

One thing I've done that is not in the traditional recipe is to add chubby strips of fresh Chinese black mushrooms to the filling. These are soft and almost fatty in texture, and they both lighten the texture and deepen the flavors.
Rice crumbs on the duck

Pork can easily be substituted for the duck, if you prefer, and it could be either meaty 2-inch ribs or tender boneless cuts. As with duck, pork goes very well with slightly sweet sauces, and it has a richness that melds well with these flavors.

To serve, I like to add a small bunch of Chinese radish or Japanese daikon sprouts alongside the little rolls as they not only add color, but also act as a palate cleanser, something like a raw pickle. Their pungency wakes up the flavors of the duck and sweet wheat paste perfectly. I also remove the plain toothpicks that hold the rolls together during the steaming and substitute pretty ones that add another flight of fancy. Completely optional, but much appreciated by diners.

Steamed lotus duck with rice crumb
Heye mifen ya 荷葉米粉鴨  
Serves 16 as an appetizer, 8 as an entree

2 large dried lotus leaves (see Tips)

Rice crumbs:
Rice + spices
½ cup regular raw rice (not sweet or glutinous)
2 petals of star anise
1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
(or ½ cup commercial rice crumbs; see Tips)

1 whole duck breast (two halves) with skin on, preferably organic and free range (see Tips)
1 tablespoon minced, peeled ginger
2 tablespoons minced green onions
1 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 tablespoons sweet wheat paste (tianmianjiang)
2 tablespoons roasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon sugar
4 large fresh Chinese black mushrooms 

Chinese radish (or Japanese daikon) sprouts, or cilantro sprigs, or green onion shreds

1.    Soak the lotus leaves in a large bowl of very hot water while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. When they are soft, rinse them carefully to remove any dust, and then wipe them clean on both sides with a paper towel. Trim off the center stem and then cut each leaf into 8 wedges. Cover the leaves with a damp towel to keep them supple.
Duck breast

2.   If you are using commercial rice crumbs, skip this step. Otherwise, place the dry, uncooked rice in a dry, unoiled wok along with the star anise and Sichuan peppercorns. Cook the rice over medium-high heat, tossing constantly, until the grains turn from translucent to white and then very slightly toasted. Cool the rice and then grind it coarsely (see Tips).

3.   Rinse the duck breast and pat it dry. If it is not boneless, remove the bones, but keep the skin on. Slice each side of the breast horizontally (against the grain) into 8 even pieces. Place the duck slices in a medium work bowl.

4.   Add the ginger, green onions, black pepper, rice wine, soy sauce, sweet wheat paste, sesame oil, and sugar to the duck. Toss them together. Remove the stems from the cleaned mushrooms and slice each mushroom into ¼ inch wide strips. Add them to the duck and toss. Pour the rice crumbs over the duck mixture and toss again.

5.   Prepare 16 plain toothpicks and a steamer. Lay the 16 lotus leaf wedges out on a clean work surface, the wide side toward you; the smooth green side should be face down and the rougher lighter side on top. Divide the filling among these leaf wedges, placing a mound near the wide end. Fold the bottom third of the sides over the filling and then roll up the leaf all the way to the filling; secure with a plain toothpick. Place the little packets in the steamer and steam over medium-high heat for about half an hour (see Tips). Remove one and check; the rice crumbs should be soft and completely cooked through. If not, close up the packet and steam the duck for another 10 or 15 minutes. (This dish may be prepare up to this point, cooled, and then stored in a resealable freezer bag in either the refrigerator or freezer. To serve, simply steam them until heated all the way through; see Tips.)
Duck in the sauce

6.   To serve, you may replace the plain toothpicks with fancy ones. Arrange the packets on a serving platter or individual plates, and garnish as desired. Show your guests how to eat them by unrolling one wrap completely onto a small plate and then rolling up the leaf back up and tucking it at the side of the plate out of the way. Pieces of the duck filling can then be plucked up with chopsticks or a fork by the diner.


Check the lotus leaves before you buy them for signs of insect infestation or excessive breaking. The insects will appear as either tiny cocoons on the leaves or black dust (insect poo) at the bottom of the bag. Excessive breaking means that the leaves are too old. Store the extra leaves in an air-tight plastic bag in a dark cupboard.

Commercial rice crumbs are called zhengroufen (steamed meat powder) and are usually in the spice or dried goods aisle of a Chinese grocery in tall, narrow, white boxes. Of varying quality, they are very inexpensive. Make sure that they have expiration dates and use before that.

Ground rice crumbs
Sushi rice or any other plain white raw is fine here, as long as it is not converted rice like Uncle Ben's. Make sure the rice is at room temperature before you pulverize it. The best way to do this is in a spice grinder, although a mortar, food processor equipped with a metal blade, or a blender will work if you don’t overdo it. Pulse the rice until it is broken into between half and a quarter its original size, but do not grind it into dust.

Use the best quality duck breast available, and leave the skin on, as duck meat can be dry. The fat is delicious and will work its way into the rice crumbs and mushrooms, making this a succulent delight.

Rice crumb dishes generally will not suffer if you steam them longer than suggested; the only thing you should worry about is under steaming them, as then the rice is chewy rather than soft and mellow. So, feel free to steam these the first time for an hour if that is more convenient, or put the frozen or refrigerated packets in the steamer and steam them a second time an hour or so before you serve them.

Plain, unpainted toothpicks work best during the steaming process, as they slide easily into the leaf and will not bleed any colors onto the finished dish. If you would like to use prettier toothpicks for the presentation, just before serving simply slide out the plain ones and replace with the fancier ones.