Teochew Braised Duck 潮式卤水鸭
Taking a break from all that CNY baking, I need something therapeutic, a getaway from the current routine of separating yolks from whites and creaming butter. I told myself that it has to be something simple but yet immensely gratifying. I was doing some grocery shopping at a local supermarket to replenish my baking supplies of butter and icing sugar when I couldn’t help but wonder along the aisles of food. Then I found salvation, “Teochew -styled Braised Duck it shall be” , I reckoned to myself.
Fresh duck was available at a rather cheap $9.90 a bird. They look a tad smaller than the usual fellas that go for $13.50 nowadays and a tad leaner too. No wobbly skin and excess lardy cakes of fat at the rumps, the way I like ducks to be. I grabbed two (the other can be used for itek sio or itek tim) and made a quick whizz to the cashier’s before more damage can be done to my pocket.
I have a confession to make here. I’m not Teochew. Well, not all 100% of me at least. But my late paternal grandmother always spoke Teochew to my eldest aunt and her hubby who is Teochew. So my cousins are half Teochews. Family dinners were always fun with the intermingling of dialects across the dining table, code-switching between Hokkien, Teochew and Mandarin. She passed away many years back when I was still in my college days. But my memories of her are still rather vivid, especially her kitchen which was always full of life and laughter during family gatherings and reunion dinners. Despite being evening affairs, preparation work usually began early in the day. I didn’t get to help out with it much, because help was almost never needed. Not when my grandmother had abled hands from my aunties, as well as my mother who would be fussing endlessly over the assortment of cooking and washing that amounts to all those delectable dishes that eventually land on the dinner table later on. While my cousins would be playing along the corridors with the neighours’ children, I remembered having spent a considerable amount of time in the kitchen, just sitting there, perhaps removing the root-hairs from a bean sprout or two, but most of the time just sitting there watching as the hustling and bustling went on. All the familiar sights and smells from all that cooking going on. I guess that was when my love for food all started…
When I was young, I remember watching her prepare Braised Duck on numerous occasions, usually at family gatherings or reunion dinners where this dish would make its quintessential appearance, almost without fail. I never had hands-on practice in my grandmother’s kitchen when she was still around. In fact I got to prepare this dish years later when I was much older, and my grandmother was no longer around, reinventing it from my memories of observing my grandmother preparing it and tastes from the reunion dinner table.
1 whole duck (about 2 kg)
3-4 pieces of tau kwa
6-8 eggs hardboiled and shelled
6 pieces of tau pok
1/2 cup of good quality dark soy sauce
A thumblength knob of galangal, sliced thinly
10 – 12 cloves “old” garlic
2 star anise
1 stick of cinnamon
1 tbsp five-spice powder
salt, to taste depending on dark soya sauce used
2-4 tbsp white sugar,depending on sweetness preferred
water, as required
In a large wok or casserole, pour in the dark soya sauce, galangal slices, five spice powder and stir a bit to mix well. Remember to use good soya sauce, whose flavours would almost decide the “make or break” of the dish.
Trim away the fat glands deposited on both sides of the inner cavity near to the duck’s parson’s nose. This is very important. Pluck and remove any stray feathers or quill stalks as well, especially the “hidden and tucked away areas” like under the drunsticks or wings. Carefully slide the duck into the wok breast side down and give it a good “belly rub” in the dark sauce concoction. This would help the duck to colour.
Hoist the duck up from the wok by holding its neck and carefully turn it over to do the same “roll-about” for the back. I find this rather “ceremonious” than pragmatic as the duck would darken with the subsequent cooking anyway. But my grandmother seemed to perform this step in a staunch and ritualistic manner every time.
When the duck has gotten a nice dark tan, turn it around with its tummy side down and lay it carefully in the wok.
Pour sufficient water to submerge half to two-thirds the duck in it lengthwise. Do not add too much water in attempt to drown the whole bird. That would dilute the concoction by too much, watering down all the flavours quite literally.
Throw in the star anise, cinnamon stick and garlic cloves. I like to use the old variety commonly added to bak kut teh as it has a more full-bodied and robust taste compared to the whitish ones chopped up for stir-fry dishes. My mum would sometimes bruise the cloves of garlic to help release the flavours but I found this totally unnecessary. Moreover, the garlic would nicely soften to develop a rather sweet and meringued texture from prolonged cooking and leaving the parchment-like skin membranes on helps to keep these little packets of creamy goodness intact!
Cover the wok with a lid and allow the duck to slowly simmer over low heat for about 20 mins.
Meanwhile, Cut the tau kwa lengthwise into rectangular cuboids.
Turn the duck after 20 mins by propping it up from the wok with 2 chopsticks clasped under the wings and slowly sliding it back in again on the other side. Doing this without making a mess requires quite a bit of practice. Continue to simmer over low heat for another 20 mins. Tasting the sauce may be performed at this juncture. Add salt or light soya sauce to attune the flavours to one’s liking. Add tau kwa, hardboiled eggs, tau pok at this point. Check the flavour and add salt and sugar to season
Repeat the turning process and after returning the duck into the wok, and allow the ingredients to simmer with the duck for the last 20 min. Do remember that apart from the initial bringing ingredients to a boil after the addition of water, the duck is simmered under low heat henceforth.
Finally after an hour of so of slow simmering, the duck should be more or less ready. The whole kitchen should be enveloped by the intense aroma from hoard of spices blended with the rendered duck fat. We can do a raincheck by observing if the skin has torn away from the drumstick slightly. The meat should be rather firm and succulent. If one likes the meat to be softer and more tender, continue to cook for another 15- 20 mins.
Remove the duck and place it on a large plate or baking dish to cool before carving. Do not attempt chop up the duck while it is still hot.
I like to transfer the residual broth, eggs and beancurd pieces into a pot after the duck is removed. Tau pok maybe added while allowing the broth to continue to simmer gently. Add more water if required.
The flavoured hard-boiled eggs, tau kwa and tau pok pieces are cut and served alongside the duck, drizzled with the braising liquids.
Nothing beats eating Teochew-styled Braised Duck with a bowl of Teochew porridge “teochew muay” cooked with merely rice and sweet potato. The earthly sweetness of the sweet potato goes exceptionally well the savoury sauce drizzled over the porridge. I remember my grandmother making me eat piping hot porridge when I was very young. To cool the porridge down more quickly, I would decant the “um“, by tilting the spoon ladened with rice bits along the sides of the bowl. This left behind a bowl of starchy liquids with residual grains of rice at the bottom, despite my half-hearted dredging efforts to retrieve them, and not to mention a very displeased grandmother, who would promptly nag at me for wasting food and went on repeating her stories of how this “um” was like a life-saving elixir during the war times when food was scarce, and meals few and far between.
I like to do a tapioca leaves stir-fry with sambal chillied shrimp, more affectionately known as “hae bee hiam“, to go with the porridge. Very homely cooking, reminiscent of dishes my late grandmother would whip up from scratch with all the pounding to prepare the “rempah” using her old mortar and pestel. The whole house would be pervaded with the pungent and almost choking aroma of hae bee hiam being fried over hot oil. My mum buys ready-made “hae bee hiam” from a mixed vegetable rice stall in a neighbouring coffeeshop which is also quite good. Call me biased, but it is simply not quite the same calibre as my grandmother’s. I especially loved to pick at the little morsels of shrimp left on the plate after the dish was being devoured.
Otherwise, the porridge can be plainly but fully enjoyed with a small cube of fermented cheesy soya beancurd 豆腐乳 or pickled mustard greens in olives 橄榄菜.
Simple fare but immensely fulfilling. Now that I’d had my fix, time to get back to the baking!