The Duck Restaurant

Every so often – and more often than not – I’ll go on a Top Chef kick and enjoy multi-hour marathons while crafting or knitting or mapmaking. These extravaganzas inspire an already sensually foodie disposition to go on a bit of a mental rampage of menus and ideas and textures and flavours – none of which I’ve ever been trained to do, of course. Can I get that perfect crisp sear on a scallop which I remember melting on my tongue (with a rich truffle butter) in Parallax – visit – so long ago? Probably not without tons of practise … even supposing I could find fresh diver scallops in southern Illinois any time of year. Could I create a casein-free risotto crisped in an oven to the tremulous crackling texture of the softshell crabs I had in Galveston with my beautiful sister last summer? Not a chance; even if I could replicate the chemistry with a soymilk product, I’d more likely than not burn the whole thing in the 30 seconds between just about and offal.

Buttery savoury pumpkin seeds, I can manage. I whipped out four fabulous separate curries today of such different feels and flavours it staggered me at the versatility and chemical makeup of spices. My scones speak of quiet rainy mornings with a cup of tea and a really engaging book – and even my herbed winter breads are becoming more useful for slathering spiced butter upon and less for using as blunt projectile missiles.

It’s about the process, right?

But tonight I’m reminiscing about this incredible little restaurant up the mountainous back streets of Fuling – not so far from the quintessential hotpot place which at some point will merit multiple entries of its own. Mm, every restaurant in China seemed to have a couple of things they did so extraordinarily well – garlicky mushroom jiaozi (dumplings), sweet and sour spareribs, incredibly thin griddle cakes sliced and lightly filled with this wonderful rich pork concoction that tickled every taste bud simultaneously. Here’s a tip – never choose from the menu when dining with people who are familiar with the place; follow their lead. Your favourite dish could sour in your mind in an instant, while sugarless rice crispie bars sizzling under hot seafood sauce could make you fall in love all over again. That’s because there are literally thousands of ways to make everything.

And what I’m craving tonight, with it’s crispy bites and tender meat melting off the bones and possessively flavourful sauces – so long as you AVOID biting into whole huajiao (Sichuan peppercorns) – is the duck restaurant.

Fuling is a deceptively large city. To me, it always felt like my community, a manageable, homey, familiar walk across tall bridges and tiled streets. But it’s really this sprawling labyrinth of awesomeness, and my time there could never have been enough to explore all its nooks and crannies.

When you doubled back after arriving at Gaosuntang, the slick red and green tiled sidewalks wound upward past plumbing supply shops and noodle joints, and I think a couple of karaoke establishments. And eventually, on the left, up a flight of stairs, was this little classy slice of heaven – the duck restaurant.

I can’t remember if I went first in a relaxed evening with Fengling and Shea, or in a regimented banquet with Liu Min and family. What I do remember is a basket lined with parchment and fragrant with a crispy-skinned flash-fried whole duck, still sizzling. It was like finding the doppelganger of Rodhe’s bucket chicken (

Photo from in Millersburg, Ohio

Photo from in Millersburg, Ohio

except so uniquely foreign. That fantastic crunch of perfectly crisped skin, and the dark succulence of meat underneath – nothing but buttery seafood, fine chocolate and hot duck really emulates that melting in the mouth experience.

The reason, of course, that we called it the duck restaurant – which, by the way, is not even a little helpful when directing taxi drivers – is because all of their main dishes were centered around that protein. The other dish I remember that makes my blood thicken and sing in my veins was this deep brown sugary, savoury stew comprised of thick chunks of duck meat which had been marinating and cooking for hours and so were not only incredibly tender and hearty, but also intense bursts of this indescribable flavour – dark sugar and soy and starch and spice. There were potatoes in the stew as well, which were equally tender and flavour-filled and cannot in any way be discounted.

I wish I could do justice to the flavours I’m trying to convey here. Better yet – I wish I could replicate them. It will be enjoyable to go back and do the research, but with the rapidity of change in China right now, what exists one moment may be something completely different the next, and I don’t know how it would make me feel to go back and find my city a paragon to growth, my favourite restaurant replaced with a skimpy clothing store, my salon a repository for lighting fixtures.

I tried to find some photographs of things I remember from my Fuling, but all google roads seem to lead to Peter Hessler, and try as I might, I can’t find any of my Fuling in any of his visions and rambling.

I don’t really want to.

I want to savour my bittersweet memories without the numbing awfulness of huajiao brimming in my throat. I want to remember balancing on the slick sidewalk tiles in the rain in my practical flats, while professional women with four-inch stilettos glided all around me.

And it was gliding – I think that might have been something that marked me as foreign much more than my long yellow hair or my stilted accent or my baffling habit of working through xiuxi (siesta – what was I thinking?!) – I speedwalked everywhere. It wasn’t until my feet were back on U.S. terra firma that I actually felt the climate of time from my Fuling affect me. Perfect bloody timing then, to move with studied grace and the complete understanding that time is fluid and alinear now that I’d returned to a world of schedules and traffic and screaming electronic devices. A world where punctuality isn’t just a virtue, it’s a given.

And so it’s good to remember long evenings spent laughing over shot glasses of lukewarm beer and a plate of duck mandibles. And that’s the image with which I’m leaving you tonight – a plate of fried duck heads. And I know that will make some of you recoil. But imagine, if you would, just for a moment, finding that intense comfort and faint reminiscence of home in something so otherworldly – and just how bone-deep good that would feel.


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