The Quanjude Restaurant, the largest roast duck restaurant in Beijing if not in the world, opened for business in 1979. Located near Hepingmen Gate (Peace Gate), it has a floor space of 15,000 square meters divided into 41 dining halls, including one, which can serve 600 customers simultaneously. The dining halls reserved for overseas guests can accommodate a total of 2,000 diners, and include a hall where all-duck banquets in which all the dishes are made from parts of the duck can be served to 600 people. Filled to capacity, Quanjude Restaurant can serve as many as 5,000 meals a day.
The art of roasting ducks evolved from techniques used to prepare sucking pigs. For more than a century, specialized chefs have developed the idea that the skin of the duck should be so soft and crisp that it melts in the mouth. In applying the traditional method of preparation, the chefs at Quanjude pay particular attention to the quality of the duck, the auxiliary ingredients and the type of wood burned in the oven. Special farms supply plump Beijing ducks weighing an average of 2.5 kilograms each. The two famous Beijing condiment shops, Liubiju and Tianyuan, supply the dark tangy bean sauce spread on the pancakes. The fragrant sesame oil and refined sugar are also specially selected. Finally, only the wood of fruit trees such as date, peach and pear are used in the roasting process to give the meat its unique fragrance.
The slicing of the meat from the carcass of the duck is an art in itself. A skilled chef is able to cut between 100 and 120 slices in four or five minutes, each slice with an equal portion of both skin and meat. Inventiveness is another quality cultivated at Quanjude. One seasoned chef has mastered more than 80 dishes made from the duck's innards, head, wings and webs. A selection of these dishes, whether hot, cold, boiled, fried, stewed or pickled, will be the makings of an all-duck banquet.
The first restaurant to bear the name Quanjude opened in 1864 during the reign of the Qing Emperor Tongzhi. Due to its high standards, the restaurant's fame spread rapidly and for many years the supply of roast ducks could hardly satisfy the demand. For this reason, the restaurant was rebuilt and expanded in 1948. In 1954 a branch (known as Hongbinlou) was opened in West Chang' an Boulevard and another in Wangfujing Street in 1959. These additions, however, still did not solve the problem, and with the opening of the Quanjude at hepingmen in 1979, it was no longer necessary to make a reservation a week in advance to taste Beijing's most famous culinary delight.
The history of the roast duck can be traced back to as early as the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368) when it was listed among the imperial dishes in the Complete Recipes for Dishes and Beverages, written in 1330 by Hu Sihui, an inspector of the imperial kitchen. Details regarding the cooking process were also described in this early cookbook.
During the Qianlong period (1736-1796), roast duck was a favorite delicacy of the upper classes. According to Recipes from the Suiyuan Garden, the famous cookbook written by the poet and gourmet Yuan Mei, "Roast duck is prepared by revolving a young duckling on a spit in an oven. The chefs of Inspector Feng's family excel in preparing this dish." Other scholars, after dining on roast duck, were inspired to poetry. In one collection of old Beijing rhymes (Duan Zhuzhici) one of the poems reads: "Fill your plates with roast duck and suckling pig." Another contemporary annotation reads: "When an official gives a banquet he will choose dishes to please each of his guests. For example, Bianyifang' s roast duck."