BEIJING — A statue of a giant gold duck greets visitors to Beijing’s latest museum. Devoted exclusively to roast duck, it sits on top of the seven-story Quanjude restaurant, which claims to have served almost 200 million of them.
“We want to show the tradition and history of duck cuisine,” guide Liu Hui said. “It’s very popular.”
Though she concedes that the 200 million figure may not be entirely accurate — more of a guestimate, based on current sales that can reach 2,000 per day in this, the biggest branch of what’s claimed to be the world’s largest chain of roast duck restaurants.
That’s a lot of ducks.
The museum was opened to mark this year’s 150th anniversary of the restaurant, which now has about 100 branches worldwide.
Roast duck — or Peking Duck, as it's often known — has been served in Beijing for around 600 years, according to Liu. First served by palace chefs during the Ming dynasty, it has royal pedigree.
"It’s all about the color, the smell and the taste"
The restaurant’s first chef was poached from the palace during the later Qing period.
A plaque points to the “the state level intangible heritage” of roast duck, a cuisine “bearing both brilliant civilization and breath of modernization.”
The meat is prized for its thin, crisp skin, and is usually served with pancakes, sliced spring onions and bean sauce.
The brightly lit museum covers around 1,200 square yards, using scenes in which clay figures illustrate the different stages of the cooking process — culminating in the ducks, basted and pumped with air to make them more plump, before being hung for up to an hour in a special oven.
Traditionally, the ovens use peach tree wood, and reach temperatures as high as 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
On the walls are pictures of Chinese leaders scoffing roast duck, including Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping. There is also a photograph of President Richard Nixon during his ground-breaking 1972 visit to Beijing and an ailing Kim Jong Il, the late North Korean dictator.
“He brought a big dog with him,” Liu said. It is not clear if the dog also had a nibble.
Five floors below, chef Yu Fenggang used a large pole to hoist ducks in and out of a flaming oven in the time-honored manner.
“The fire is the most basic thing,” he said. “The temperature of the stove is the most important thing.”
But what makes for a really tasty roast duck? “That is confidential,” he said. “They are all secrets. We have our rules. I cannot tell you all the things.”
A duck was placed on a trolley and wheeled out of the bustling kitchen and into the cavernous restaurant. Traditionally it is carved in front of diners.
This was duck number 196,080,319. It said so on a commemorative card served with the duck. And this was NBC News' duck.
“It’s all about the color, the smell and the taste,” said Yu. And while the museum gives some quirky insights, the real secret of Quanjude’s roast ducks remains just that — a secret.