The secret of duck sauce
If on your way home from Soho, you decide to buy a takeaway duck from a Chinatown restaurant, you’ll be offered a small plastic pot of sauce as they package your order. Make sure you accept the pot of sauce.
Both the duck and sauce will be put into a bag, which despite your best efforts to control spillages and leaking, will inevitably leave a trail of brown greasy drips wafting oriental scents in the tube and train: the unwanted but unavoidable evidence of a duck dinner being transported in public.
Fortunately, by the end of the journey home, there’s usually enough sauce left to add a spoonful onto the duck. The sauce is delicious – rich in soy, ginger and garlic. There’s a background sweetness, musty earthy notes with the woody fragrant tastes of bay, star anise and cinnamon. Pure unctuousness. I always ask for extra so I can perform my own taste analysis.
It’s a complex sauce, but after repeated attempts to replicate, I got to the stage where I needed more original sauce on which to experiment. I had thought of taking a tupperware container or thermos flask to the restaurant and hoping they might fill them up. However, this prospect seemed more awkward than simply asking how the sauce was made.
So it was that I found myself back up in Soho in my favourite Chinese restaurant asking for a takeaway duck. The Chinese chef took a roast duck hanging in the window and started chopping away at it and packaging it up. As I was being offered the usual small pot of sauce I inquired if he would be able to give me the recipe. He gave me big smile, and with a heavy accent in perfectly clear English, said he could, but then he would have to kill me!
Considering he was wielding a huge meat clever, I recoiled: did I hear correctly? Am I risking my life for duck sauce? He laughed loudly and explained that each restaurant has its own closely guarded recipe, handed down through the generations. It can take days to prepare. That’s why he was unable to give me the recipe.
My nerves settled a little from the explanation, I thanked the chef and made-off with the duck and my precious pot of sauce. It seemed the only way I was going to get enough duck sauce was to discover the secret myself.