When you think of a traditional Victorian English Christmas what comes to mind? The most likely images are Scrooge, Father Christmas, Christmas tree, snow and the Christmas goose. This traditional bird shows up in virtually every depiction of a Victorian Christmas dinner. The most common recipes call for onion and apple dressing and spit-roasting over a wood fire. During the nineteenth century, while Queen Victoria was supping on her goose, in the Chinese Qing imperial palace half way around the world one of the most beloved dishes was a stuffed duck dish known as Eight Treasures Hulu Duck. It was an elegant, sumptuous dish made from a deboned duck filled with glutinous rice and studded with eight other ingredients. It would have been a perfect Christmas bird for the Qing Dynasty’s ambassador to Victoria’s Court.
Come to think of it, though, the ambassador would probably have been recalled and executed for duplicating an Imperial recipe without consent. But fear not, modern culinary historians have reconstructed the recipe for us to enjoy. In fact culinary researchers at the National Palace Museum in Taiwan, which is currently staging an exhibit through January 3, 2012 on the Sino-Franco arts and cultural encounters during the period of Emperor Kangxi and King Louis XIV, have recreated this dish at the museum restaurant for visitors to try.
Eight Treasures Hulu Duck, according to the museum researchers, was a favorite dish of Emperor Kangxi who lived during late 17th century and early 18th century. His reign of sixty-one years made him the longest ruling emperor in Chinese history. He was a cultured and tolerant man and provided stability as well as prosperity to China. His court kitchen would have had access to ingredients from all parts of China, including the southern coastal region. It is not surprising then that two of the defining ingredients of the eight treasures are sea cucumber and abalone, delicacies of that area.
The rest of the eight treasures ingredients very much depend on the preferences of the cook. Chicken, shrimp, ham, lotus seeds, bamboo shoots, shiitake mushrooms, jujubes or green soybeans are all suitable choices, depending on availability. The eight treasures are mixed together with glutinous rice into a dressing that stuffs a deboned duck, the openings of which are then sewn tight. A string is tied in the middle of the duck’s body forming a shape that resembles hulu, or bottle gourd, giving the dish its name.
Once stuffed and tied, the duck is deep fried until the skin is golden brown and then steamed till the meat is tender. A sauce made from seasoned chicken stock and thickened with starch is poured over the entire bird before serving. Considering that the abalones and sea cucumbers have to be soaked for days and cooked for two to three hours before they can be used in the dressing, you can see how laborious the preparation is. Even for the imperial kitchen it would have been a great effort to serve this dish.
If you’re as crazy, adventurous and ambitious in the kitchen as I am, here is a recipe you can use to make this Eight Treasures Hulu Duck. Merry Christmas everyone!
Eight Treasures Hulu Duck (八珍葫蘆鴨)
- 1 whole duck about 6 pounds
- 8 cups vegetable oil for frying the entire duck
- 1/4 cup Shaoxing cooking wine
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 tablespoon sugar
- 2 counces dried abalones
- 2 counces dried sea cucumbers
- 1 counce conpoy or dried scallops
- 4 counces chicken breast (boneless skinless)
- 4 counces Smithfield ham
- 1 counce dried shiitake mushrooms
- 4 counces bamboo shoots
- 2 counces dried lotus seeds
- 1 1/2 cups glutinous rice
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1/4 cup Shiaoxing cooking wine
- 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
- 1 tablespoon garlic minced
- 1 tablespoon fresh ginger minced
- 1/2 cup chicken stock
- 1/2 cup liquid from steaming of the duck
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 2 tablespoons water to make a slurry
Two days before making the duck soak the sea cucumbers and abalones in cold water. They don’t have to be refrigerated as long as you replace the water every twelve hours. On the morning you make the duck cook the abalones and sea cucumbers by steaming them in separate shallow bowls. Steam the abalones for three hours and the sea cucumbers for two hours. Cut both the abalones and the sea cucumbers into about half-inch cubes and set aside.
Soak the glutinous rice for at least four hours. Drain the water and set aside. Soak the conpoy, dried shiitake mushrooms and dried lotus seeds in water for at least two hours. Remove the stems from the shiitake mushrooms and cut them into half-inch cubes and set aside. Shred the conpoy into strands and set aside. Drain the lotus seeds and set aside.
Cut the chicken breast and ham into half-inch cubes and set aside.
Starting from the cavity debone the duck around the ribs. Dislodge the thighbones and wing bones from the main bones until the entire body bone structure is removed. Cut off the front two sections of the wings. Save the bones for making duck stock. Marinate the entire duck in the marinade mixture for about thirty minutes.
Heat a wok until a drop of water sizzles and evaporates immediately. Swirl two tablespoons of vegetable oil into the wok. Add the minced garlic and ginger then stir-fry for about thirty seconds. Add the chicken breast and stir-fry for another thirty seconds. Next add the rest of the dressing ingredients to the wok. Stir-fry and combine all the ingredients together for another one minute. Do not add any salt as the dried seafood and the ham will season the dressing during steaming. Remove from heat and let cool.
Sew the opening of the duck neck tightly with kitchen string and a needle. Fill the body cavity with all the dressing. Sew the opening in the duck belly as well. The entire body cavity should be sewn tightly as the dressing will expand when the duck cooks. Take a kitchen string and tie the middle of the duck’s body to create the shape of a bottle gourd.
In a wok heat the vegetable oil for frying to about 375 degrees F. Fry the duck in the oil turning it over occasionally to make sure the skin is browned evenly. Drain the duck and put it in a shallow bowl. Steam the duck for about three hours. Remove the duck and put it on a serving plate.
Some liquid will collect in the bowl. Pour it into a mixing bowl and skim off as much of the fat as possible. Combine this duck liquid with chicken stock and heat until boiling. Thicken the sauce with the cornstarch slurry. Pour the sauce over the entire duck and garnish with steamed bok choy or greens and serve.