Monday, September 10, 2012

Five cup duck: a Guangxi delight

When I came across mention of this recipe, I became obsessed. Five Cup Duck. It had to be delicious.

And you know what? I was right.

The reason for my rapt attention is a) I love duck, b) I love Jiangxi's Three Cup Chicken, and c) I really wanted to know what the five cups were. Jiangxi's most famous dish has a cup each of sugar, soy sauce, and oil, and it is certainly wonderful. And here Guangxi -- which shares no borders with Jiangxi but nonetheless is not that far away -- was one-upping that province with a total of five mysterious ingredients.

When I finally found a recipe, it seemed good but not quite yet divine. 

It was on the right track, though. Instead of soy sauce, it called for salt water, and the other two ingredients were vinegar and rice wine, making this another entry in the Chinese pantheon of sweet and sour dishes. 

Fry the honey-coated bird
However, the duck was merely chopped up and quickly fried in this mixture. That is not how I like my duck. The best red meats are always slow-cooked in my book. Think of how heavenly and tender pork and lamb and beef and, yes, duck get when they are gently poached or braised or roasted. This gives the muscles time to relax, the moisture to  meld with the meat, and the flavors to penetrate every last morsel.

So I've taken Guangxi's traditional banquet dish and updated it, giving it more flavor, more depth, and a whole lot more succulence. And do you want to know what the best part is? The duck gets even better by the second day, when it's had a chance to sit in those jelly-like juices and turn into a quivering mass of perfection. 

This recipe is so good it's unreal.

But what you really have to understand is that this is a very easy dish to make. The only thing you have to do is prep a cleaned duck and then fry it to tighten and flavor and degrease the skin. Then you just plop it in the braising liquid and let it simmer very very very slowly for a couple of hours.

Cantonese white liquor
This frying step is genius. First, you smear honey all over the toweled-off bird and then fry every inch of the skin. You'll notice the skin tighten up like a drum as it shrinks in the hot fat. And, as the honey on the skin turns a deep mahogany, the fat underneath the skin will eke out into the wok, releasing all sorts of incredible aromas. If you don't do this frying step, the skin will be flabby, and all of the duck fat will drown your braising liquid. Like I said, it's a brilliant technique for braising poultry. 

Now back to the braising liquid. The traditional recipe calls for a cup each of sugar, salt water, rice wine (you can tell this is city food by all the sugar and wine!), oil, and rice vinegar. What I've done is reduced the sugar by a quarter, used a Cantonese white liquor that is rice based but packs a terrific wallop, substituted a mixture of balsamic and cider vinegar for the Chinese rice vinegar that I am still very wary of, and added a fistful of sliced ginger to both season the meat and erase some of the duck's innate gaminess. 

For the vinegar, I went for a really nice balance of sweet and tart by using half balsamic and half cider vinegar. (Bragg's is one cider vinegar that I heartily recommend.) This provided me with what is almost an almost identical ringer for a good dark Chinese vinegar, and it's one I'll be using in a lot more recipes, too.

Ginger in the braise
If you like a sweeter sauce, you'll be able to add more sugar later on when the duck's done. And if you prefer a tarter one, dribble in some vinegar just before you serve it.

One thing that makes this braised duck different from just about any other Chinese duck is the lack of herbs and aromatics. The original recipe didn't even have ginger in it, which is highly unusual. Most braised duck recipes from Shandong down through the Yangtze River valley out to Fujian and over in Sichuan all call for a grab bag of medicinal herbs that not only flavor, but also add to the restorative properties of a duck dish. You, of course, can add whatever you like, or you can even eliminate the ginger, if you want to be completely traditional.

This is perfect as is, served whole at the table so that guests can pluck off pieces. No cutting is needed, as it will fall apart with little encouragement.

What's more, it is incredible as a topping for the soft rice noodles that Guangxi revels in. So, if you do have friends over for dinner, try to squirrel away a few pieces of the duck for the next day. Or, if you are as in love with duck as I am, make two ducks and revel in your brilliant foresight over the next couple of days. A recipe for these noodles is down below.

Five cup duck Guangxi style 
Guangxi wubei ya  廣西五杯鴨
Serves 6 to 8 as part of a multicourse meal, 3 to 4 as a main dish

1 whole duck, as natural as possible
3 to 4 tablespoons honey
Frying oil as needed
1 cup Cantonese rice white liquor (Shiwan mijiu) or other rice wine
½ cup balsamic vinegar plus ½ cup cider vinegar, or 1 cup unseasoned rice vinegar
1 cup fresh peanut or vegetable oil
1 cup filtered water, plus more as needed
2½ teaspoons sea salt
¾ cup sugar
2 inches fresh ginger, thinly sliced

Cut up whole duck
1. Clean the duck and pat dry. If the head, neck, and feet are attached, cut them off and reserve, if you like, as well as any giblets, such as the liver, gizzard, and heart. Remove any large pieces of fat around the top and bottom openings; save the fat for something else (see Tips). Cut off the tips of the wings (the last joints) and reserve. What you should end up should look like the photo on the right: 

2. Use a sharp paring knife to poke tiny holes in the skin over the heavy fat deposits, which usually are around the neck and by the thighs; this will help the fat escape as it melts. Rub the honey all over the outside of the duck body so that it is fully coated. 

3. Heat a cup or so of frying oil in a wok over medium high heat until a chopstick inserted in the oil immediately bubbles all over. Carefully add the duck and fry it on all sides until it is golden brown. Don't try to rush this process, so adjust the heat so that the duck slowly fries and doesn't burn. Be careful of the liquid that will collect in the duck as it cooks; these juices will spatter when they hit the hot oil, so have a spatter screen or lid ready to protect you whenever you turn the duck over.

4. Have either a large sandpot or crockpot ready; it should be just large enough to snugly hold the duck, about 5 cups sauce, and the trimmings, if you want. When the duck is a golden brown all over, drain off all the oil from the bird and place it in the pot breast side up. Add the rest of the ingredients to the duck, as well as any trimmings (such as the fried head, neck, and feet, plus the raw gizzard and heart), and also about a cup more water (if needed) so that the duck is almost submerged. Cover the pot, bring the liquid to a boil, and then lower it to the lowest possible heat. Braise the duck very slowly for a couple of hours until it is absolutely tender. (The time will depend upon the duck, your heat source, how hot the heat is you're using, and the type of pot you use.) You won't need to flip the duck over in the sauce. If you are planning to add the liver, cook it for about 15 minutes in the pot, or until it is just cooked through.

5. Cool the duck in the braising liquid until it is cool, then cover the pot and chill it overnight in the liquid; if you wish, you can remove everything but the bird itself before chilling it, and either eat or discard these pieces. (You may also serve the duck immediately when it is still hot; just carefully lift it out of the liquid onto a platter while using two spatulas to transfer the very delicate duck.) Just before serving, remove the duck from the cold braising liquid, place it on a heatproof rimmed platter, and steam for about 15 minutes until heated through. The braising liquid can be strained and reduced over high heat until it is syrupy, and then used as a sauce; adjust the seasoning at that point.

6. Serve the duck whole on a platter with a pitcher or bowl of the reduced sauce on the side, and allow your guests to pick the duck apart.

Heavenly leftovers
Guangxi style duck soup with thick rice noodles 
Suancai yarou fenli tang  酸菜鴨肉粉利湯 
Serves 1 person as a main dish

This dish is more of a throw-together than an actual recipe. What you mainly need are the following:

A handful of fresh or frozen thick rice noodles (see Tips)
A handful of pickled vegetables of some sort (see Tips)
Some leftover duck and sauce

1. Boil the noodles for a couple minutes in a pot of boiling water to cover until they float but are still chewy; drain the noodles and reserve the water.

2. While the noodles are cooking, chop up the pickles to whatever size you like. Taste one, and if it is too sour, rinse the pickles in boiling water until they're as mild as you like (see Tips).

Pickled long beans
3. Shred the duck and remove any bones. Cut the skin into bite-sized pieces. In a small pan, heat the leftover duck in the sauce. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

4. Place the noodles in a large bowl. Arrange the pickles and duck on top, and then dribble the sauce over the noodles. Add as much of the hot noodle water as you like. Enjoy an easy dinner with no guests around.


Ducks are usually available frozen and the quality varies widely, so get one from a reputable butcher.

I like mine with all the body parts attached, as they add flavor and body to the braising liquid. But, if this makes you squeamish, get one that's already been trimmed.

Most Chinese ducks will have the tongues, hearts, and livers removed, since these are delicacies and so can be sold at higher prices.

Thick fresh rice noodles
Duck fat should be rendered simply because it is utterly delicious. Period. Hoard it like gold and use it whenever you want to show your love.

The oil the duck was fried in will have a delicious flavor, too, if you used good, fresh oil to begin with. Be sure to strain and reserve this oil, using it up over the next week to scent eggs, vegetables, and other mild-flavored ingredients.

Use any kind of pickled vegetable you like, such as spicy pickled mustard stems (zhacai), pickled mustard greens (suancai), or these pickled long beans. Anything is good as long as it has a slightly sharp bite to counteract the richness of the duck.

Frozen thick rice noodles are called fenli 粉利 if they're from Guangxi or mitaimu 米台目 if they're from Taiwan. They are increasingly becoming more available here in California in the frozen sections of larger Chinese supermarkets. If none can be found, dried rice noodles of any kind will work just fine.


  1. I wonder if this recipe could be used with just duck wings? I have a lot of them at the moment to experiment with. This sounds delicious.