In the early 20th century, hunters on the Barnegat Bay in New Jersey would shoots scores of ducks to appease the voracious appetites of diners in Philadelphia restaurants. They hid in their duck blinds, carefully concealing themselves while releasing their decoys–often carved and painted by each hunter himself–in the cool dawn light hoping to lure the precious birds close enough to be shot. It was a way to “work the cycle” which included tonging for oysters for those same urban eaters in one season and then foraging in the forests another. Like those oysters, the ducks didn’t last forever, even though early visitors described how the birds would nearly block out the sun when they migrated. Soon enough, President Herbert Hoover was promising a “chicken in every pot” suggesting that our national tastes in fowl had changed.
But, to coin a cliche, everything that’s old is new again. No more timely barometer–or shaper–of culinary proclivities than David Chang, of Momofoku Ssam Bar, is opening a restaurant in New York with an all duck lunch menu. Appropriately enough, even before reading that bit of foodie news, I had decided to sample the wares of the Reading Terminal Market’s Sang Kee Peking Duck House.
Plus, I love duck. It’s greasy, in the right way. Gamey, but not funky. Crispy, when done right. And divine when wrapped in thin pancakes smeared with sweet and savory hoisin sauce, preferably with one of those cool scallion brushes. Truly I don’t understand how people can prefer bland chicken over these red-skinned treasures.
I decided, instead, to sample some duck noodle soup at Sang Kee instead, feeling an inexplicable desire to be somewhat healthy and warmed from the inside. Gratifyingly, the cook doused a heavy handful of noodles into a roiling, boiling pot of water while another hacked into a duck carcass with the subtlety and finesse of a jungle explorer getting through some vines. Inexplicably, while I waited no one else came to order any food, only bottles of water. Perhaps Philly isn’t ready for the duck resurgence?
I took my huge container of soup–noodles on the bottom, duck on top, swimming in scallion broth–and found my companion. As I began to pull the noodles up from the bottom of the container (admittedly difficult with a plastic fork), a young man approached saying, “my friends are wondering where you got that from.” Envy is the sign of good food choice.
The noodles were excellent, with all the right springiness. Sadly the broth was somewhat greasy and could have used some spice. The advantage to eating noodle soup outside the Reading Terminal Market is the availability of condiments like sriracha. And what of the star? The duck was on the bone, satisfyingly meaty, though it took some work to eat it, perhaps another reason that some folks resist it. It made me wonder, though, whether peking duck, designed to be crispy, makes sense in soup, which obviously changes its texture. Next time, I’m going back for the pancakes and scallion brushes.
Recommended: Learning more about the Barnegat Bay at the Tuckerton Seaport; eating duck noodle soup on a cool day, especially if you bring chopsticks and hot sauce.