After enjoying delicious street food on my first night in Shanwei, Guangdong, I was introduced to Mahjong. Mahjong is a game that involves matching sets of tiles. Different tiles are printed with numbers, pictures, and Chinese characters. I had seen it played before, but I had never sat down and played it. My hosts play regularly for small amounts of money, but I was new, and so they taught me and we played just for fun. I won my first hand — beginner’s luck I assure you.
When foie gras is discussed, there is usually one of two reactions. Sometimes, people will praise the subtle flavor of this French delicacy. And other times, people will discuss cruelty to the ducks used to make foie gras. Foie gras (French for fat liver) is the liver of a duck (sometimes a goose, but traditionally, a duck) that has been overfed so that the liver becomes fatty, and much larger than its natural size. This fattened liver is prized for its delicate, smooth flavor.
The controversy over foie gras is the supposed cruelty shown to the ducks as they are being raised for their livers. And more particularly, the process known as gavage is at the heart of the issue. Gavage is the process whereby a tube is inserted into the duck’s throat, and food (usually corn grain) is pushed into the duck, feeding it more than it would naturally eat at one time. This causes the liver to become fatty. This fattening process causes the liver to take on a lush, subtle, earthy flavor that is unlike any other food on earth. Fattening of duck and goose livers by gavage is as old as civilization, and was even recorded in ancient Egypt.
The way I see it, there are two major complaints brought against the foie gras industry. The first complaint, brought by animal rights activists and vegetarians in general, is that animals should not be used for food. While I really do understand their point of view, that argument is very broad, and involves not only foie gras, but all other food made by or from animals. I personally made the decision long ago that I will eat animal products. In an ideal world, I suppose that no animal or human would ever have to die or suffer, but in the world we live in, I am content to eat both vegetables, and meat.
The second argument is much more compelling to me. It is that the foie gras Moulard ducks are treated cruelly. Specifically, it is charged that they are confined to tiny cages where they can barely move, forced to live in filth and disease, and that the gavage is harsh and forced, and causes physical and psychological damage to the animals. Now, let me say unequivocally, that if all of that is true, then I agree that it should be stopped. I am 100% oppose to cruelty to animals. But to be fair, while opponents of the foie gras industry assert this cruelty, others insist that it is not true, at least on high-quality, reputable foie gras duck farms.
You can find a never-ending amount of information about this issue on the internet. For example, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has promoted actress Kate Winslet’s exposition of the foie gras industry. According to Winslet and PETA, the process is cruel and barbaric. But others have argued that the liver-fattening process is similar to the process in which the ducks naturally overeat to fatten their livers for their winter journeys. Also, many people argue that gavage only lasts a few seconds, does not upset the ducks, and does not harm them physically or psychologically. For example, chef Anthony Bourdain argues that the process is not cruel. And many high-quality, reputable foie gras farms allow open tours of the process.
The truth is that only disreputable, low-quality foie gras farms subject ducks to abusive conditions. And yes, those sorts of places do exist. It is unfortunate that, in the food industry, and in every industry, there will always be participants who try to cut corners, and in doing so, harm people or animals. I believe it is safe to say that we foodies who love and respect food and where it comes from, are completely opposed to the abuse of animals in food production.
But we must also realize that there are some very reputable, honest, accountable foie gras farms where ducks are not shut up in tiny cages, and where lavage is a gentle, professional process that does not harm the ducks in any measurable way. Ducks do not have a gag reflex (as evinced when they swallow entire, live, flopping fish in nature), and do not have the part of the brain that is able to self-examine and foresee distress. If ducks are otherwise treated humanely, and if the gavage is harmless and quick, then I see no argument against the process.
Provided the ducks are not abused, then I see foie gras as a food of the gods, an offal ambrosia. Because it is so different from standard liver, and because nothing else on earth really tastes like it, I find it quite difficult to describe the flavor, and to express why it is so wonderful. I supposed the flavor has a hint of the earthy, gamey, iron tang of standard duck liver, but only very subtly. It has a creamy, golden richness, a soft, delicate hint of duck meat, an almost indiscernible floral element, and a slight, rare sweetness. The texture is soft, fatty, and creamy, especially if it has been made into a pâté, but even if it is seared brown on the outside, the inside still explodes with luscious smoothness. To eat it is to participate in a veritable culinary orgy, an overpowering of all of the senses with delicious ecstasy. It is food fit for the Pharaoh, for the Olympic gods. It is, quite possibly, the best food on earth.
Ah, duck meat. It is unctuous, dark, rich, fatty, sweet, earthy — it is like a 1959 Château LaTour in its elemental organic soul. The Chinese dish called Beijing Duck (or Peking Duck, using an earlier system of the romanization of Chinese sounds) dates to at least the early Middle Ages during the Imperial period of Chinese history. It is possible, even likely, that it is ancient though, perhaps thousands of years old. It was imperial cuisine, meaning that it was served to the emperor and his court as the pinnacle of Chinese culinary art.
Today, Beijing Duck is served in basically the same manner as in ancient times. It is a whole duck, roasted over flame until the skin becomes crispy, then served in pieces with various garnishes and thin pancakes. The specific process is a bit more complicated. The preferred duck is Anas platyrhynchos domestica. They are allowed free range, but much like the foie gras ducks raised in France and in the Hudson River Valley in New York state, they are force-fed to make their meat fatty and oily. This adds flavor, or more specifically, enhances and carries the flavor of the meat itself.
After the duck is killed, air is pumped into the neck cavity resulting in the skin separating from the flesh. This is important to the roasting process, as it produces a thin, crispy skin, and moist meat. The duck is then glazed in a maltose-based syrup, and hung for at least one day before the cooking process. The duck is then roasted in a traditional fire brisk oven, often a closed one. The fuel used is straw. This imparts a slight sweetness to the duck.
Serving the duck is an art. The chef will bring out the entire roasted duck on a cart. Standing close enough to the table to be seen, but not close enough to accidentally get food on the diners, he will cut and separate the entire duck into three parts: the skin, the meat, and the fatty meat. These are placed on three different serving dishes. On other dishes around the duck will be the condiments. The traditional set is julienned scallions, thicker julienne cuts of cucumber, and a sweet, bean-based dipping sauce. More elaborate sets may include pickled radish and other condiments. The final serving dish includes a stack of extremely thin pancakes, so thin that many foreigners accidentally pick up several at once, thinking they are one.
In my opinion, the best way to eat Beijing Duck is to place a couple of pieces of the skin, the meat, and the fatty mean onto the pancake, along with two cucumber sticks and two green onion slices. Then I pour the sauce over it all sparingly, roll the pancake, and eat with my hands. The delicate, slightly-sweet earthiness of the duck blends with the sweet sauce, the watery, floral flavor of the cucumber, and the pungent bite of the onions. It is a delicacy in the true sense of the word.
To me, the intricacy and precision of the duck raising, the preparation, the roasting, and the table service, indicate a great respect and love for both the duck and the diner. The flavor combination, carefully honed over hundreds or maybe thousands of years, are the essence of culinary art, combining sweet, bitter, and earthy flavors. The duck, prepared its entire life for that one bite, has developed an oily character with fatty meat. But it is not the sort of overpowering greasy fat that can ruin good meat. Rather, it is that sort of luxurious fat that serves to carry the flavor of the meat. Beijing Duck is a very special dish, and if you have not yet enjoyed it in Beijing, then you must try it at least once. It is truly one of the world’s great masterpieces of culinary art.