In a corner of the light and bright kitchen, red-hot charcoal burning in the cement stove turns into gray ash. A free-range duck, cleaned thoroughly, with its feathers all plucked and entails removed, is trussed and ready to be cooked. As the water in the cast iron wok boils, an hour-long hot bath awaits the duck, after which the Hainanese boiled duck is born.
Pang Yok Sin, one of the school directors of Port Dickson Chung Hua High School, is sweating profusely while cooking, busy controlling the temperature of the charcoal stove and the doneness of the food, with assistance from his wife. After soaking the duck in boiling water, rotating it at intervals while pouring boiling water over its flesh to ensure even heating and doneness, the cooked duck is removed from heat to cool before being cut up and served. The remaining soup stock is the essence of the duck, and can be used to cook fragrance duck rice, blanch vegetables, make essential condiments, or even cook zucchini soup. Uncle Pang and wife conjure up a tableful of authentic Hainanese dishes while demonstrating the virtue of thrift.
The specialty of Hainanese dishes focus on fresh ingredients and their original tastes. The four classic dishes being: WénChāng chicken, JiāJī duck, DōngShān mutton, and HéLè crab; all were named after their cities of origin. Among them, the traditional way of preparing WénChāng chicken and JiāJī duck is by boiling, to preserve the tender meat texture of poultry. During the global mass migration in the 20th century, many Hainanese forefathers settled down in Malaysia, simple Hainanese dishes such as boiled chicken and chicken rice became popular. However, authentic Hainanese boiled duck and duck rice balls are rarely found in local restaurants. Uncle Pang is only able to savour these upon visiting his eldest brother or paying respects to his ancestors in QióngHǎi city.
Boiled duck is easy to cook, the challenge lies in seeking a suitable duck. JiāJī duck, commonly known as “foreign” or mule duck, is a hybrid of muscovy and common duck, and the breed was said to be brought in from Malaysia to JiāJī town in QióngHǎi city some 300 years ago. The features of mule ducks are a stout body and shanks, with white and black feathers which are extra long at the wings and tail. Mule ducks are allowed free range for two months, and then force-fed for a month. Therefore the duck has thin skin and soft bones, its meat high in protein but low in fat, best boiled to showcase the tender texture. The Malaysian government discourages home poultry breeding due to hygiene reasons, yet the duck available in supermarkets are unpalatable, so mule ducks are hard to come by.
With great difficulty to secure a suitable duck, Uncle Pang endeavoured to retain the natural taste of the duck. Firstly, clean the duck of feathers and entrails, rub it over with salt and flour, then blanch it. Prior to boiling, the duck is stuffed with equal portions of ginger, garlic, and shallots mixed with salt. It is then trussed to ease rotating. Controlling the charcoal stove temperature at a simmer requires patience and skills, so that the duck is cooked evenly. The remaining ginger, garlic, and shallots are then stir-fried, drizzled with the rich duck stock, enhancing flavours by adding lime, vinegar, or chilli. Such is the preparation of condiments to complement the dish.
Even though it has been decades since Uncle Pang last cooked this traditional dish, the steps are deeply ingrained in his mind, particularly the charcoal stove brought back fond childhood memories of cooking together with his parents and siblings. The open kitchen doubles as a dining hall where the entire family gather happily. Zucchini is planted in the backyard, easily available to be plucked and cooked into soup whenever the family is having boiled duck, the succulent zucchini is packed with yummy duck aroma.
The simple yet delicious boiled duck and various derivative dishes reflect the strong emotional bonds in Hainanese dishes. The elder generations taste familial attachment, while the younger generations chew upon cultural heritage. Uncle Pang who is of advanced age, not only took pleasure in cooking, but also proactively promotes traditional native cuisine.
Text: Daniel Lim & Pua Hui Wen
有你 UNI Production
Producer : Mok Yii Chek
Coordinator : Daniel Lim
Cinematographer : Amelia Lim / Evon Pang
Video Editor : Amelia Lim
Production Assistant : Michael Lerk
Music : The Romantic
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