December 23, 2005

The Hong Kong holiday duck

My extended family gathers on Christmas Eve at my mom and dad’s house. We eat, exchange gifts, listen to Kenny G, catch some of the little ones’ contagious excitement, and tell my parents, “I think that’s the best tree you’ve ever had.” It’s our favorite night of the year.

On Christmas Day, I usually host my parents for a baked ham and lasagna brunch, but my mom's back is bothering her and she's opted to stay home and rest. So this year, Mike, Adam, Dana and I will be on our own on the 25th.

“What do you guys want to eat for Christmas brunch?” I asked the clan. “Anything you want. I can roast a turkey, make a ham, bake a lasagna, have French toast and syrup... Or, we can go out. Find a place that’s setting out tables of shrimp, omelets, roast beef, cheesecake. What’ll it be?”

Before you could say Mao Zedong, Adam answered, “Chinese.”

“Chinese? On Christmas? Seems weird,” I said. “What do you think, Dana?”

“Fine with me.” Mike shot me a when-life-gives-you-teenagers-you-pretty-much-do-what-they-want-unless-it’s-dangerous-immoral-or-illegal look. Chinese it is.

I went to the Lucky Corner Restaurant and picked up a take-out menu from the owner’s son, who advised me to call in my order at least 24 hours in advance. "I had no idea Christmas was such a big business day for you," I said. “The biggest, after New Year’s,” said the son as he pointed to a list of dishes that would not be available on those days because their complicated prep threw kinks into the mass production assembly system the kitchen used to meet the holiday demand.

I’d had Chinese on a major holiday once before. It was Thanksgiving, and Mike and I were in Hong Kong (above). We wanted to come as close to feasting on a traditional turkey dinner as we could and decided that Peking duck would be a suitable substitute fowl. We asked our hotel's desk clerk to recommend a good duck restaurant, and he directed us to a place near the yacht harbor at Causeway Bay.

We found the restaurant, a cavernous affair with 20-foot ceilings hung with blindingly bright chandeliers. Institution-grade metal chairs sat in tight rings around giant Formica tables. The place looked like a nursing home dining hall or a high school cafeteria. There were no customers. Desk clerk's dad must own the joint, we decided. Do we stay or go?

Before we could escape, a little man in a black suit hurried over, bowed his head, and showed us to a table. We followed like sheep. He gave us menus, and we pointed to the Peking duck. The man nodded and disappeared.

About a half-hour later, he reappeared and asked if we wanted anything. Well, we were hoping for some duck and whatever goes along with that, but in the meantime we’ll have some beer.

For hours, Mike and I drank beer while we waited for our Thanksgiving duck. Every half hour or so the man in the black suit would come to the table and ask if we wanted anything. (God, yes, man! Some duck!) We asked for bread, salad, rice. Something -- anything -- to sop up the beer. The man would nod, bring more beer, then disappear until his next half-hourly visit.

"I think I know what's happening here," I said after our third or fourth round. "They went into some alley to buy a duck, and while we’ve been sitting here, they’ve been in the kitchen killing, plucking, cleaning, dressing -- and then cooking a duck that was alive somewhere in Hong Kong when we walked through the door!” This was pre-bird flu, so the thought amused rather than alarmed us.

Two and a half hours after we entered The Desk Clerk’s Family’s Restaurant, the little man brought a duck to our table. And soup, rice, steamed and stir-fried vegetables, condiments, tea, and little gossamer pancakes.

We pushed the beer bottles out of the way and tucked into the duck. It was outrageous. If there are restaurants in heaven, this is what they serve. That golden-brown bird was possibly the most glorious food that’s ever passed my lips. We had a whole fowl between us, and we shared amicably, though each of us would have wrestled the other to the floor for total possession of the divine duck were it not for the threat the tussle might pose to our marriage. The skin was a meal unto itself. Crisp, dark and juicy-marvelous. The flesh deep, dense and succulent. A culinary triumph. Worth the wait? All two and a half hours of it.

Will we order duck from Lucky Corner on Christmas? No.

Once you’ve eaten the real deal, you don’t mess with the memory of it by eating poor imitations from cardboard cartons.

Where shall we go next?

Ribbons of Highway: A Mother-Child Journey Across America