A visit from important foreign guests to the institute warranted a trip to eat the all famous, “Beijing kao ya,” or Peking Roast Duck. Our group of ten headed to a famous roast duck restaurant near the Olympic village. The place was packed with waitresses in Qing Dynasty costumes with walki-talkies and headphones. The walls were covered in pictures of foreign guests and dignitaries that had dined there during the Olympics. I noted that Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo represented the Philippines as well as one could with a whole naked duck in the foreground. We were ushered to the private “Putin room,” complete with Chinese and Russian flags as the table centerpiece and pictures of Vladimir Putin and his entourage enjoying roast duck. We ordered two entire ducks prepared with the “Putin” menu.
This restaurant was obviously still riding the Olympic theme. First to arrive on our table was a small plate of fried duck skin intricately woven into the shape of the neighboring Olympic bird nest. Next was a simulacrum of the Olympic aquatic center which took the form of duck skin chunks suspended in a rectangular mass of translucent gelatin. The jiggling mound was set atop a base with a blue twinkling light bulb making it glow aquamarine. I tried a cube as it glided past me on the rotating glass Lazy Susan. It tasted exactly like what you might expect if you ate a big spoon full of the semi-hardened grease that pools around your turkey a few days after Thanksgiving.
The waitress announced the name of each in Chinese as she placed them on the table. First was the usual, duck meat served with sweet hoisin (thick dark and sweet) sauce and spring onions all to be rolled up in thin crepe-like pancakes and eaten like tiny burritos. Undeniably delicious! Then, a plate of fleshy floppy “duck feet” arrived. With a little encouragement from my boss, the other American at the table and I lifted the wilted webbed bits of flesh from the plate with chop sticks, dipped them into mustard sauce, and plunged them into your mouths with a cringe. We both reached for our beer and gulped to forget the soft crunch of flavorless cartilage. I understood the next few dishes as announced, “duck liver,” “duck hearts cooked in Chinese white liquor,” “duck neck,” “boiled duck head,” (which was split in two for ease of eating I suppose). But then there was one dish announced that was beyond my vocabulary and visual identification. I turned to my boss and said, “I don’t’ know that one.” He laughed out loud and said, “And nor can I tell you.” There was an awkward silence as he thought for a moment and then said in English, “The Chinese have a special word for this too, “Duck Precious!”
I tried everything and at the same time tried not to think about what effect the layering of such new cuisine in my stomach might have later.