I love my birds. But I have to slaughter them.” With this gory line, Vivek Kushwaha grins at Chef Wang Bing of Hotel Shangri-La across the table. Chef Wang understands. Rearing Peking ducks and cooking them is not a sentimental profession. There will be blood.
In preparation for the Chinese New Year, 3,000 ducks are being put on the truck from Kushwaha’s Gayatri Organic Farms, to be door-delivered to hotels. At 8 am, however, the scene is a happy pastoral. The poplars have shed their leaves. Little chicks are bursting out of the hatchery and ducklings are clucking their way to a pond. In a few hours, a batch will waddle to a feeding machine for a balanced diet of nutrients that will fatten them till they are 45 days old. After that — the purge.
Kushwaha, sent by the Hyatt Regency to pick the nuances of duck rearing in Beijing,brings to the killing a Confucian spirit. (In a famous anecdote about him,the pragmatic Confucius had said, “Was anyone hurt when the stables were burnt down?” He did not ask about the horses.) A painless death, Kushwaha knows, means tastier flesh; his clients will be happy. “I go for the jugular vein, puncture the duck’s brain so that there’s no pain,” he says.The ducks are then hung upside down, blanched in boiling wax liquid and chilled in cold water to prevent fat breakdown.
When a man makes another living creature hang upside down, there’s no reason to think that he means it as a mark of disrespect. On the contrary, Kushwaha has great regard for it. “When I went to China, I saw three things written on a packet — Climb the Great Wall, Eat the Roast Duck and Shop at the Silk Market. So I know what ducks mean to China,” he says to the chef.
The duck’s value, however, in China has depended on which direction you are pointing your plate. “Unlike Beijing, the Northern Capital, it’s not the top meat on the table in west or central China,” says Tony Cheng, the Al-Jazeera correspondent in Beijing. A measure of a person’s wealth in China, in the old days, he says, was serving pork during New Year. Peking duck has, over the years, become China’s tandoori chicken, attracting tourists to city restaurants where each outlet says it is the first or the best. The bird tastes good and can be inexpensively produced. “You can get Peking duck for a dollar or two in ordinary middle-class restaurants where people spit on the floor and you can get it in Mainland China at the Hyatt for $100,” says the journalist.
At the Shangri-La, a feast of soup, duck slivers served with green spring onions, cucumber and black bean sauce, awaits me at the end of my research. Waiters pour Chinese tea. Glass touches glass, the cutlery clinks. Someone rolls some pancakes and puts them on a side dish. Chef Bing, the artist, lays an orchid beside the roast. I push it under the table. There’s only so much space on a plate.