'Perhaps the most thrilling thing about crispy duck was the impossibility of ever making it yourself.' Until now: your very own homemade Chinese crispy duck. Photograph: Jill Mead for the Guardian
Is Chinese crispy duck the ultimate Asian dish in a cook's repertoire? Try this relatively easy (and nearly authentic) recipe to impress guests - for a fraction of the cost of a takeaway.
I was showing off to my brother-in-law recently, recounting how I once ate crispy duck at an open-air restaurant in Laos. After a starter of cold duck's blood in a soup dish topped with golden, crisp fried shallots, we were served a huge platter of roasted carcass, and encouraged to toss the bones over our shoulders for the stray dogs to chew on.
"Gosh," said Rupert pensively. "It wasn't a bit like that at the Mandarin in Lingfield." His eyes grew moist as he recalled his childhood outings to the takeaway, with its brown smoked glass windows and steamy waiting area at the front. For a schoolboy in 80s Surrey, this was pure exotica.
"For years I thought crispy duck with pancakes was the world's greatest dish," sighed Rupert. "Until I discovered sweet-and-sour chicken balls in bright orange sauce. That really blew my mind."
For me, though, it was always crispy duck. And (despite my boasting) not the Laotian kind, but the Rupert kind. My equivalent of the Lingfield Mandarin was a slightly plusher Chinese restaurant in Putney, with a swirly carpet and thick white tablecloths. Everything about it seemed foreign and sophisticated: the waiter who pulled apart the tender duck with a fork, the bamboo steamer loaded with soft pancakes, and the fact that you were expected to assemble your own meal. My friend Ed and I used to argue for hours about the correct order of construction: sauce, duck, spring onions and cucumber (him); or duck, spring onions and cucumber, sauce (me, clearly right as you don't want the sauce soaking into the pancake).
But perhaps the most thrilling thing about crispy duck was the impossibility of ever making it yourself. Everyone knew that it required a process of salting, boiling, rubbing, drying, roasting, and glazing so fiendishly complex that Confucius himself would have balked and ordered a takeway.
So it is with some trepidation that we offer up this week's recipe. Not because it is too difficult for the novice cook, but precisely because it isn't. Of course this isn't the authentic method. What you produce with this recipe will be subtly different from what a restaurant might serve (the pancakes will take on a lightly toasted colour for example). But it doesn't take days, the duck will come out crisp as you like and it will cost you about a quarter of the amount you would pay in a restaurant.
Crispy duck and pancakes
The salting of the duck can be done the night before or a few hours before cooking. The duck can also be cooked ahead of time and re-heated to serve with the pancakes.
Prep time: 20 minutes plus overnight salting
Cooking time: 1 ~CHECK~ to 2 hours
4 duck legs
1 tsp five-spice powder
1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns, crushed
1 tsp salt
A drizzle of honey
200ml chicken stock
For the pancakes
150g plain flour
100ml boiling water
1 tbsp sesame oil
A pinch of salt
Spring onions, sliced
1 To salt the duck, prick the skin of the legs all over with the tip of a sharp knife or fork. Mix together the salt, 5-spice and crushed peppercorns. Rub the dry mix all over the duck legs and allow them to sit in the fridge overnight or for a few hours before cooking.
2 Preheat the oven 200C/400F/gas mark 6. Pat the duck legs dry with some kitchen roll. Place them skin-side down in a frying pan in which they will all fit comfortably. Place the pan over a high heat. After about 5 minutes the skin will start to crisp and brown. Make sure that the legs are well browned before turning them over to cook the other side.
3 Transfer the legs to an ovenproof dish. (Any reserved duck fat can be used for potatoes at a later date). Drizzle the skin with a little honey and add the chicken stock to the dish. Put in the hot oven for about 20 minutes before dropping the temperature down to 140C/275F/gas mark 1 for another hour or until the meat falls away from the bone of the duck leg.
4 While the duck is cooking, start to make the pancake dough. Tip the flour into a large bowl and add the hot water and sesame oil. Sprinkle with a little salt and bring the mix together with a palate knife or spatula. Knead the mix with your hands for about 10 minutes until you have a smooth dough. Leave to rest for at least 30 minutes.
5 When the duck is ready, allow the duck leg to cool slightly before shredding the meat from the bone with two forks.
6 It is now time to roll out and cook your pancakes. Separate the dough into several pieces the size of golfballs. Roll out each ball as thinly as possibly on a lightly floured surface. The pancakes don't have to be perfectly round or uniform in any way - they should just be as thin as possible and be able to fit in the pan you are going to cook them in.
7 Heat a nonstick frying pan over a medium heat until hot and lower your pancake into the pan. You could stretch them with your fingers before placing in the pan.
8 Cook for about a minute on either side until slightly browned in places and transfer to a serving dish. Repeat with the rest of the dough mix.
9 Serve the shredded duck with the pancakes, cucumber sticks, spring onions and hoisin sauce.