Eight-Treasure Stuffed Calabash Duck

At the highest echelons of banquet cookery, Jiangnan chefs are known for their Kung Fu dishes: elaborate concoctions that demand time, expense, virtuouso cooking skills, and often a bit of madness. In the past, the salt merchants of Yangzhou and the rich citizens of Suzhou feted visiting emperors with multiple Kung Fu delicacies; one historical account of a banquet describes a host of complex dishes including steamed camel’s hump and mock leopard’s fetus!

These days, few restaurants are equipped to serve the more elaborate traditional dishes, but one exception is the Lu Mansion in Yangzhou, which is encouraged by the local government to fly the flag of classic Yangzhou cooking. I was lucky enough to spend a few days in the kitchen there, learning the ropes of the Three-Head Feast, including legendary dishes such as slow-cooked pig’s head and this extraordinary eight-treasure duck. The boned duck is stuffed with glutinous rice, sewn up, tied around the waist to resemble a lucky calabash gourd, deep-fried, stewed, and finally served with a sauce reduction.

This, then, is a just a taste of crazy, complicated, wonderful Kung Fu cooking, and it’s probably the most challenging recipe in the book, but a fantastic dish for a special occasion. To make it, you will need a pair of good kitchen scissors; a heavy chopping cleaver; a needle and strong cotton thread; a thin ribbon or some string made of uncolored, natural fiber; and a certain amount of patience. While the recipe may take time, I hope you’ll agree that the end result is spectacular.

INGREDIENTS

Serves 6–8
  • 1 oven ready duck (about 4 lb/2 kg)
  • 5 t dark soy sauce
  • 1 oz (30g) fresh ginger, skin on
  • 2 spring onions
  • 1 star anise
  • 4 T Shaoxing wine
  • 2 T light soy sauce
  • 2 t superfine sugar
  • 1 T potato starch mixed with 2 T cold water
  • + cooking oil, for deep frying
  • + salt
  • + small heads of green bok choy and strips of red bell pepper, for garnish (optional)
  • + STUFFING

STUFFING

  • 1/2 C (100g) glutinous rice
  • 2 dried shiitake mushroom
  • 2 oz (50g) bamboo shoots
  • 2 oz (50g) raw chicken breast
  • 1 1/2 oz (40g) Spanish or Chinese cured ham, steamed briefly
  • 2 oz (50g) ready-to-use lotus seeds
  • 2 oz (50g) green soybeans
  • 1 1/2 T cooking oil
  • 2 t finely chopped fresh ginger
  • 2 t finely chopped spring onions, white part only
  • 4 t light soy sauce
  • 1/2 t dark soy sauce
  • 1/4 t salt

PREPARATION

STUFFING

  1. Cover the glutinous rice with cold water and leave to soak overnight, or for at least 4 hours. Cover the shiitake mushrooms in boiling water and leave to soak for at least half an hour.
  2. Remove and discard the mushroom stalks and cut the caps into 1/2 in (1cm) dice. Cut the bamboo shoot into 1cm dice and do the same with the chicken breast. Cut the ham into slightly smaller dice. Bring a pan or wok of water to the boil. Add the lotus seeds, green soybeans and bamboo shoot dice and blanch for 30 seconds, then remove and drain. Drain the soaked rice.
  3. Heat the cooking oil in a seasoned wok over a high flame. Add the ginger and spring onion and stir-fry briefly until fragrant; add the shiitake and ham and stir-fry until they are also fragrant. Add the chicken and stir-fry until just cooked through, then add the bamboo shoot, lotus seeds and soybeans. When everything is piping hot, stir in the rice, the light and dark soy sauces and salt. Set aside to cool.

DUCK

  1. Bone the duck: break the joints that connect the legs and wings to the body and break the internal joints in legs and wings, taking care not to damage the skin of the bird. Lay the bird breast-side down on a chopping board and use kitchen scissors to snip down the center of the skin along the neckbone to the top of the torso—this will create an opening large enough to remove the carcass of the bird. Now carefully peel the skin and flesh away from the carcass, snipping close to the ribcage to detach the flesh from the bones as you go, and taking great care not to damage the skin. Don’t try to rush this—it requires patience and care. Cut through the broken shoulder joints when you reach them, and keep snipping. At some point you may find it easier to start snipping from the bottom end of the bird. Keep snipping until you can remove the entire rib cage from the bird. Keep this for another use (it will make a wonderful stock).
  2. Now, working from the inside of the bird, snip along the leg bones, cutting away the flesh from the bone. When you reach the first joint, you should be able to winkle out and discard the bone (which you can also add to the stockpot). Keep snipping until you reach the end of the drumstick—at this point, use a heavy cleaver to chop through the bone, leaving the nub at the end of the drumstick attached to the flesh and skin. (You don’t want to cut out this nub, or you will end up with a hole at the end of each leg.) Repeat for the other leg, then for the upper bone of the wings. Chop off the ends of the wings, just below the joints. Now snip into the parson’s nose at the base of the bird, and remove and discard the small, gray-yellow, kidney-shaped glands on either side.
  3. Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Turn the duck inside out and blanch it briefly in the hot water, then rinse it well under the cold tap and turn it right-side in again. Use a needle and strong cotton thread to sew up any holes in the skin, and to sew up the hole in the base of the bird.
  4. Push the cooled stuffing through the neck and into the bird, poking it into the furthest reaches. The bird should only be loosely filled, otherwise it may burst during cooking. Sew up the hole in the neck. Use some natural ribbon or string to tie it tightly around the middle to make a “waist,” like a calabash gourd. Wipe any stray rice grains off the skin of the boned bird, then smear it all over with 2 teaspoons of the dark soy sauce. Slice the skin-on ginger and cut the spring onions into 2 in (5cm) lengths. Boil the kettle.
  5. In a stable, seasoned wok, heat the oil for deep-frying to 320°F. Very carefully, lower the bird into the oil and deep-fry until golden brown, turning it once for even coloring. Carefully remove it from the oil and set aside.
  6. In a saucepan large enough to take your duck lying down, heat 2 tablespoons of the deep-frying oil over a high flame. Add the sliced ginger, spring onions and star anise and stir-fry until wonderfully fragrant. Add some hot water from the kettle, add the duck, then top with enough hot water to cover. Add the Shaoxing wine, light soy sauce, 2 teaspoons of the dark soy sauce and the sugar. Bring to the boil and season with salt. Cover the pan, turn down the heat and simmer for 1 1/2 hours.
  7. If using, trim the bok choy, discarding any tired leaves. Cut a small cross in the base of each head and insert a small strip of red bell pepper into each cross. Bring a pan of water to the boil. Blanch the bok choy until just wilted, then refresh it under the cold tap. Drain well and set aside.
  8. To finish the duck, remove it from the pan and put it on a serving dish. Strain 1 1/3 cups (300ml) of the cooking liquid into a wok, bring it to the boil and season with salt. Add the remaining 1 teaspoon dark soy sauce. Give the potato starch mixture a stir and gradually add enough to thicken the juices to a lazy gravy-like consistency, so they will cling to the bird. Pour this gravy over the duck. Garnish, if you wish, with a circle of the blanched bok choy. Serve the duck whole and carve it at the table, taking care to remove any pieces of sewing thread before eating!

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