Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes/ Wen Chow
Eating with Eichholtz
Chinese cuisine is so incredibly diverse I could write about it in every Eating with Eichholtz article. To be able to say anything meaningful, I have to limit myself to taste-testing one specific aspect. I’ve chosen duck. Although many different variations and preparation methods exist, the two best-known ones are from Beijing and Guangzhou.
As usual, I’ve enlisted the help of local experts. My dinner companions are Peiran Jiao, assistant professor at SBE, and Xiheng Chen, PhD student at ICIS. Peiran ended up in Maastricht by way of Oxford, but is originally from the Beijing area, while Xiheng came here straight from the Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China. I’m blessed with the perfect local expertise.
The first question, of course, is: what’s the difference between Cantonese roast duck and Peking duck? It all starts with the duck itself, which is small and thin in Guangzhou but large and fat in Beijing. While both variations are cooked in a very hot oven, Peking duck is cooked in the centre of a brick oven and Cantonese duck is cooked on the side of a steel oven. Cantonese duck is chopped into chunks, whereas in Beijing the bones are used to make broth, which is later served as a separate course. The filleted meat is then served in slices with the skin on. You wrap these slices in small rice pancakes with some raw vegetables and Peking duck sauce and eat them with your hands. In both cases, the fatty yet crispy skin is the main criterion of quality.
Our first stop is Wen Chow, opposite the train station. Wen Chow is probably the best-known Chinese restaurant in Maastricht. Like almost all other Chinese restaurants in the Netherlands, they cook Guangzhou style. That’s why we go for the Cantonese roast duck, even though they also serve Peking duck. We order half a duck. While we wait for our food to arrive, Peiran and Xiheng teach me some of the basics of Chinese table manners. We start with unwrapping our chopsticks and cleaning them by putting them in a bowl with the eating ends down and pouring hot tea from the teapot over them from the middle. I’m not allowed to place my chopsticks across my rice bowl, because this symbolises the bridge to hell. Fortunately, it doesn’t take long for the food to show up.
The duck looks beautiful. It has a good colour and a shiny skin that’s just crispy on the outside and has a layer of super soft fat on the inside. It’s delicious. The meat is nice and juicy, accompanied by a tasty, thin gravy. It’s a challenge to use the chopsticks to get the meat off the bones without devolving into barbarian practices. Reassuringly, my Chinese table companions don’t seem too embarrassed by me.
They, too, are happy with the food: Xiheng says it’s the most authentic duck she has eaten here in the Netherlands, and the vegetables taste like they do at home. Of course, there are some remarks to be made. She would’ve liked the skin to be just a touch crispier and she misses the plum sauce, an essential part of Cantonese roast duck. Also, the gravy could use a little more salt.
While we’re at Wen Chow, our Peking duck is already in the oven at restaurant Mary Wong in Vroenhoven. I’m very much looking forward to it. We had a family dinner at Mary Wong about five years ago, which was a true experience – the duck was carved at the table, straight from the very hot oven. We’re in good spirits as we get on our bikes to climb our way to Vroenhoven. It turns out to be a long march for Xiheng; I can only motivate her to keep going by painting a vivid picture of the feast and atmosphere awaiting her at the restaurant.
And then, in the biggest anticlimax of the day, we find out that Mary Wong is no longer a restaurant, but only a takeaway restaurant. So here we are, with our duck (and paraphernalia). We decide to descend by bike to SBE to eat it there. That’s when we discover Peking duck is a dish unsuitable for takeaway. Only when served and eaten piping hot – when the skin is fragile, the subcutaneous fat velvety and the meat juicy – does the duck come into its own. Transporting the poor thing first allows it to cool down too much, resulting in chewier skin, grainy fat and tough meat. As if that wasn’t enough, Peiran is also dissatisfied with the colour, the sauce, the pancakes and the garnish. In other words, Wen Chow wins not only in terms of accessibility, but also in terms of quality.
Unregularly, Professor Piet Eichholtz (Professor of Finance at SBE) trawls the streets of Maastricht in search of good food with a student or colleague and reports on his findings here