Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Li Qun


It's the first word that comes to mind when discussing the experience eating at Li Qun, a Beijing roast duck institution. It felt like we had been whipped back in time, before China's commercialization, pre-pre-Olympic "improvements" that sanitized Beijing within an inch of its authenticity. It was one of the most real, and one of the best, eating experiences I have had in this country.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me set the scene:

We were en route to Singapore for a music festival (#seeyaLaneway2014!) and we had a 5-hour layover in Beijing. Now, I ask you - is there any better use of that time than to head into town for a taste of classic Peking duck? I didn't think so.

I had heard tell of a legendary roast duck restaurant that, despite being in the center of the city, was hidden away in the hutongs and thus removed from any 'improvements' on traditional methods. This was clearly the place we had to go.

So we tubed to Tiananmen Square and marched around with the soldiers for a second to work up an appetite before heading behind the monumental government buildings and down a dusty street, a gateway to the duck of our dreams. And the writing was literally on the wall - as we stumbled along trying to match our moving little blue dot to Gmap's pin, we saw the barely-visible graffiti of a giant duck on the brick, and then a trail of smaller ducks leading us further into the maze. After walking through a door and past several hanging ducks, glistening with the reflections of the flames licking the mouth of the traditional brick oven, we knew that, in the immortal words of the Talking Heads, this must be the place.

We were shown to a table in the center of the 'lived-in' (real estate speak for 'somewhat shabby') space, surrounded by darker banquet rooms but brightly lit by a skylight above our heads. The peeling paint and chipped cups didn't matter - the room had a patina of history as rich as the laquer on each duck. After having seen the burnished beauties hanging post-roast, we skipped the soups and sides and immediately ordered a full duck (around 200 rmb) with some starters.

While sipping tea and waiting for our duck, we were delivered the traditional accompaniments: warm paper-thin pancakes, slices of cucumber, strings of spring onion, and an astoundingly deeply-flavored bean sauce - it almost tasted fermented, with a complex fruity tang.

We also started in on our starters - more cold cucumber slicked with spicy oil and a dish of eggplant caramelized in a syrupy sour-sweet sauce, both exceptional even after endless variations.

After eating too much plum sauce while watching duck after duck waddle by in the arms of waiters, we were finally presented our full duck, which was quickly whisked away to be sliced. When we were reintroduced, the duck had been reduced to mahogany scales, patterning the plate in crispy crescents of skin and fat and some tender meat. We wasted no time in building baby duck burritos, layering flavors and textures, and tucking in.

The massacre was over all too fast, but not quickly enough, having realized that we hadn't been watching our watches. We had to frantically scramble, sprinting through the subway and groaning while holding our duck-filled bellies on the Express back to the terminal.

Even feeling slightly sick (Very. Sick.), it was worth it.

For real.

Li Qun
11 Beixiangfeng, Zhengyi Lu
Dongcheng District

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