If you’re looking to start an argument, forget about politics and religion. Assemble several self-identifying foodies and throw out a sentence like “spaghetti and meatballs are not authentic.” Then walk away, whistling, with your hands behind your back. I guarantee you the group will come to blows before the hour is out. We can plow the rich ground of culinary authenticity battles another time, but the fundamentalist line tends to sound something like this:
* Ricotta cheese is made from whey, not whole milk. Ergo, every tub of “ricotta” sold in American supermarkets is a dirty lie.
* Thai food is cooked by Thai people, period. I don’t know what Andy Ricker thinks he’s playing at out in PDX.
* California rolls aren’t “sushi.”
The post-structuralist view can be just as galling, disavowing the existence of objective standards altogether. A middle-aged woman once threatened to punch my lights out in the Real Food Company on Russian Hill when I told her the things she thought were called scallions were actually shallots, because, as it turns out, that is what her mother called them, and her grandmother before her. Far be it from me to screw with someone’s fond childhood memories.
Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously once said, when asked to define pornography, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.” That pretty well covers the problem with most attempts to establish the “authenticity” of various foods. Everyone means something different when they use the word “authentic,” but there comes a point at which nearly everyone can agree the boundaries have been pushed beyond a reasonable point.
Take, for example, Peking duck. This is a dish you only obtain at Chinese restaurants, not the scary takeout with the plexiglas window where you can get enough sesame chicken to feed yourself over the next two days for $5. Peking duck is the province of the kind of Chinese restaurant Chinese émigrés frequent on the Lunar New Year. It requires at least 24 hours advance ordering. When the waiter brings it out to the table, everyone turns to watch in envy (or anticipation) before he takes it back to carve into shards of crisp skin and tender meat, to be eaten inside soft wheat pancakes as a prelude to duck soup and maybe duck fried rice. Unlike the aforementioned sesame chicken, Peking duck not only originated in Beijing but has a centuries’ long history of preparation and consumption according to more or less the same set of rules, in basically unreconstructed form, whether in Beijing, the United States, or Britain. It is an undeniably Chinese food and is easy to categorize because it’s always been prepared according to a fairly narrow set of specifications. And we all know what a Peking duck isn’t. A pig in blanket isn’t a Peking duck. Roast chicken and lefse isn’t Peking duck.
But some foods are harder to categorize, like tacos. Pretty much everyone agrees on the little corn tortillas, sometimes overlapped or doubled up and sometimes not, spread with a little bit of meat filling, maybe a little onion or cilantro, and then rolled or folded for eating. Beyond that, the question of taco authenticity is far more complicated than that of Peking duck. Rigid types will tell you tacos have to be served on corn tortillas made from masa harina and beyond a certain level of garniture, they are no longer tacos but rather some fancy perversion. Others will note the influx of wheat flour into the Northern Mexican states – Sonora and Chihuahua in particular – eventually led to the preparation and acceptance of wheat flour tortillas into the Northern Mexican diets, so a taco on a wheat tortilla is still a taco. Still others will argue the taco doesn’t stop being a taco just because it crosses the border from Mexico into Texas or Arizona or even points further north, and that there’s a difference between quality and authenticity. Take any tortilla and fill it with some kind of seasoned meat and a few other items, or basically any edible item for that matter, and you have a taco. By this reckoning, Taco Bell might not make a good taco, but it isn’t wholly inauthentic, either, because the basic parts are there. Can you push it a little further? What if you fry the shell first – the Ortega crunchy-shell business I’m always droning on and on about how much I love? What if you add pineapple and sriracha and Thai chiles? Does either of those things stop the resulting dish from being a taco, or is it still a taco if you call it a taco?
So can Peking duck be a taco? Fundie authenticity types would string me up for even suggesting it, I’m sure, but let’s look at the facts. Roasted meat, thin griddled wheat flatbread, some type of fresh onion, and maybe some vegetables. Based on a strictly side by side comparison of basic ingredients and assembly, how is Peking duck not essentially the same thing as tacos al asador? And yet, I wager a survey of most people will establish that few believe Peking duck to be a type of taco, and that hoping to turn it into a taco by simply calling it a “duck taco” is the equivalent of Jan Brady strapping on a curly black wig and expecting to gain a whole new identity – ridiculous and not likely to fool anyone. At the same time, at least some of those same people would find it clever to make or be served a “duck taco with hoisin,” like this number from a Los Angeles restaurant. It seems ridiculous to claim one is a taco and the other is not. What would Potter Stewart say? Will the real Jan Brady please stand up?
It doesn’t really matter whether Peking duck is a taco or not. It’s one of the best things to eat, and that’s good enough. Peking duck is an event. It’s special-occasion food. You don’t just decide you’re going to make Peking duck tonight and whip it up when you come home from work, at least not unless you’ve done a whole bunch of advance prep. It involves multiple steps, none of which is remotely difficult but each being necessary to a successful duck. The most important of these are separating the all skin from the meat before you do anything else to the duck, and letting it dry well in the refrigerator or in front of a fan in a cold room. These ensure the surface will be dry when it goes in the oven, minimizing steaming and any tendency to rubberiness, and the fatty layer under the skin will heat quickly and melt off, leaving shatteringly crisp skin that’s both savory and a little sweet.
Peking duck is not about the meat, although obviously the dish does yield some. Use a Pekin duck (or Long Island duck), the traditional duck used in Beijing for this dish. They are bred for their skin and fat, not their meat and by happy coincidence are the least expensive ducks you can buy; for this dish, don’t waste your money on ducks better suited to breaking down and searing, like Muscovy or Moulard. The high heat needed to crisp the skin will ruin the meat of those breasts, which should be served medium rare. Instead, accept that the meat of the Pekin duck will be fully well done. You should serve both the skin and the meat with the pancakes, hoisin sauce, scallions, and if you like, some fresh cucumber.
Maltose is a type of sugar that is not nearly as sweet as sucrose, only about a third as sweet. It comes from barley malt and is the stickiest shit you’ll ever encounter in a kitchen. If you can’t find the super-thick version available in Chinese stores, but have access to Whole Foods or some other natural foods store, try barley malt syrup, which is pretty similar and far easier to work with (although it has a slightly more toasty taste).
For the duck:
1/4 tsp five spice powder
2 tbsp kosher salt
1 Pekin duck
1/4 c maltose syrup
1 tbsp rice vinegar
1 tbsp soy sauce
1/4 c water
Combine the salt and five spice powder. Set aside.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Set up a colander in a well-draining sink.
Trim the excess fat from around the neck and cavity of the duck. You should remove your rings for the next step, if you wear rings. Starting at the cavity, separate the skin from the fatty skin with your hands, working slowly to avoid tearing. Once you get to the point your hands are too big to go any further without damaging the skin, insert a small/medium wooden spoon, convex side against the skin, into the space between skin and meat and work slowly to separate all the skin. Do the same for the thighs and legs, as well as you can (the skin from the drumstick portion of the legs you do not need to detach if you find this difficult). Classically, air is pumped between the two, but this is difficult to accomplish at home and the spoon method will work just as well.
When the water comes to a boil, stand the duck cavity side down in the colander in a sink and slowly pour the boiling water evenly over all. Do not pour faster than the sink can drain immediately. Pat the duck dry. Season the cavity with the salt/five spice mixture.
Clear enough space in your refrigerator to accommodate both the pan you will be using and enough vertical height for the duck. If you have one of those obnoxious beer can chicken roasters, stand the duck on the roasting apparatus, cavity side down. If not, use a clean, tallish (empty) beer can. I recommend the 16 ounce Heineken or Bitburger cans. Place in a small roasting or cake pan large enough to accommodate the bird standing up. Refrigerate at least 6-12 hours before the next step.
Bring the maltose, vinegar, soy, and water to a boil and remove from heat once the maltose has dissolved. After the duck has dried out for about 6-12 hours, paint the surface evenly with a thin coat of the maltose. Return to the refrigerator and repeat every 6-8 hours if possible until you have added three coats. It should be shiny and quite dry/barely sticky to the touch.
Heat your oven to 450F. If you have a rotisserie arrangement, now is the time to use it! Be sure to place a large pan under the duck to catch the fat and drippings. If not, carefully place the duck, still standing vertically in its pan, in the oven. Blast it at 450F for 5 minutes and then turn the heat down to 350F. Do not open the oven door to check on it, at least not for the first hour. Use this time to make the pancakes.
After about 75=90 minutes, your duck should be ready to come out. Remove the pan or rotisserie. Allow it to cool about 10-15 minutes to allow the glaze to re-harden. It will be rather glossy and a deep mahogany.
Separate the skin in the largest pieces possible and slice them up. Remove what meat exists from the bony frame and slice or shred it. Serve it with the pancakes and other condiments listed below.
For the pancakes:
2 c flour
1/4 tsp salt
2 c boiling water
toasted sesame oil
Whisk together the flour and salt in a stand mixer bowl. With the mixer running, add the boiling water slowly. Knead until you obtain a smooth, elastic dough. You do not need to let this dough rest as it is a boiling-water dough; the gluten becomes very relaxed from the high heat. Roll into a ball and divide in two; roll each half into a smooth ball, then into a cylinder, and divide into 10 uniform pieces each. Cover what you aren’t using. Gently flatten two pieces at a time; brush each on both sides with sesame oil. Place one oiled disc atop another. (Alternatively, roll each half into approximately 1/8″ thick disc. Stamp out rounds using a biscuit cutter.)
Roll out the double disc and then flip over; roll some more. These should be as thin as you can make them without tearing. Don’t press too hard or they will stick together and become difficult to separate.
Place a dry skillet over medium high heat and, when hot, add the rolled out pancakes (if your skillet is large enough, you can do two at once). Wait for them to just barely puff slightly and flip. They should be browned in spots but not burnt or uniformly brown. Place in a steamer basket lined with a clean kitchen towel and cover with the towel. Cover with the steamer lid. Don’t let them sit out uncovered or they will dry out as the steam escapes.
To assemble and serve:
1 long Japanese cucumber, peeled and sliced into 2″ batons
1/4 c hoisin sauce
Slice the scallions thinly on the diagonal or, for a fancier presentation, cut them into 2″ lengths, slice those vertically into 1/8″ batons, and place in ice water for up to an hour.
I don’t like raw cucumber so I rarely eat it plain, but instead dress the cucumbers with a little rice vinegar and sugar to take off that raw edge. If you choose to do this, combine 2 tbsp of rice vinegar, 2 tbsp of filtered water, 1/2 tsp sugar and a pinch of salt and dress the cucumbers lightly about 30 minutes before service.
Serve the duck with the pancakes, the hoisin sauce, the cucumber, and the scallions. Diners may build their own or you may build them before service (which tends to look nicer).
Note: Acolytes of postmodernism who think I have butchered and/or misrepresented your viewpoint, it’s possible, sure. Feel free to let me have it in the comments.