My earliest memory of eating this dish was when I was about 12 and we were on our way to Haw Par Villa, a Chinese mythologically based theme park in Singapore. It was one weird theme park. I imagine if you put Zhang Yi Mou, Ang Lee, David Lynch and Wes Craven in a room full of acid, this theme park would be their demon lovechild. The theme park was a menagerie of weird and wonderful fiberglass technicoloured weatherworn mannequins of Chinese monsters and demons grimacing and leering from behind bonsai trees and wispy willow plants at the odd Oriental damsel in distress and/or sexually ambiguous and disconcertingly young naked cherubins (and the odd old man doing a fairly unconventional breast exam).
The piece de resistance however was their star attraction – a water flume ride. Its starts off seemingly mundane and boring as it went through the usual banal motions of water splashes and lunges and dips. But just when you thought it was all over, it slows down and forces you through a dark looming ominous belly of a dragon in which was displayed the 18 levels of Chinese hell in all its garish, gory and grotesque glory.
So, there I was, 12 years old, all fresh faced and innocent, squealing with glee from the 4 storey drop, as I caught breath and wiped my face from the spray, innocent, and giggling in the afterglow. I sure like hell (pun intended) was not ready to be plunged into the belly of a dragon, with little dioramas depicting scenes of robbers being gutted, adulterers being repeatedly castrated and burnt in hot oil, all under the watchful eyes of the God of Hell.
I don’t think I have ever fully recovered.
After surviving Hell, dad would slap me gleefully on the back unbeknownst to the horrors his son had to endure and bring me shaking and shellshocked to this little hole in the wall Teochew braised duck hawker.
Hell’s salvation is a dish of tender juicy duck slow braised in a dark deep intensely spiced and fragrant soya sauce.
1.5 to 2kg duck
½ bulb of finely chopped garlic
½ cup light brown sugar
5 tbsp Chinese five spice powder
8 tbsp dark soy sauce
8 tbsp light soy sauce
15 cloves of garlic
4 whole star anise
5 green cardamon pods
3 inch stick of cinnamon
salt and white pepper
6 large free range eggs
What to do:
(1) The night before, dry the duck with kitchen paper and rub all over the skin and inside the cavity with the finely chopped garlic, 2 tsp of salt and 2 tsp of pepper and 5 spice powder. Really rubbing it in to make sure that the flavor gets in.
(2) Leave it in the fridge uncovered to chill and marinate.
(3) The next day, remove the duck from the fridge.
(4) In a pan wide enough to fit the length of the whole duck, heat up half an inch of oil.
(5) Slide the duck, garlic (leaving the skins on if you are feeling lazy), star anise, cardamom pods, cinnamon and cloves into the pan of hot oil and fry the skin of the duck until it becomes brown and crispy and the spices become fragrant.
(6) In a separate stockpot, large enough to fit the entire duck, melt the sugar under a gentle fire until it becomes a golden caramel. Be careful! You don’t want the sugar to burn! (firstly because this isn’t a recipe for cancer so it doesn’t call for burnt carcinogenic sugar and secondly, more importantly, it’s a real bitch to remove burnt sugar stuck to a pan)
(7) Carefully slide the crispy skinned duck into the pan of the melted sugar. Do this very slowly because melted caramel is deceptively ridiculously scorchio.
(8) Roll the duck in the caramel slowly for 15 mins ensuring that all of the duck is covered in this caramel and the fat from the duck is slowly being rendered.
(9) Now add the oil from the fragrant oil and spices into the stock pot with the duck. If you can be bothered, have mad dexterity and/or are up for a challenge, try to tip the oil and the spices into the cavity of the duck. Again carefully, there’s hot melted sugar and hot oil at work here! Together it probably has an average temperature comparable to the core of the sun. God help you and your modeling career if any of it lands on you.
(10) Add the light soy sauce and the dark soya sauce and 5 cups of water.
(11) Now let it come to a rolling boil before dropping it down to a mild simmer.
(12) Let it simmer for 1.5 hours. Turning it once at the 45 min mark to ensure that the duck is coloured evenly. Tasting as you go along, adding salt and pepper if necessary.
(13) Boil 6 large free-range eggs for 5 mins in boiling water. Remove them and plunge them into cold water. Peel the shells and place hardboiled eggs into the stockpot.
(14) Turn the stockpot off and leave the duck inside for another 30 mins.
(15) Serve the duck with halved or quartered eggs and rice. Garnish with a sprig of coriander (only because everything looks so much better with coriander).
[Optional: You can include shiiitake mushrooms and firm tofu to the dish at stage 13 with the eggs if you want a more substantial meal]