Bites of tradition

Learning to make great-grandmother's Teochew braised duck

Braised duck, a traditional Techew dish.
Braised duck, a traditional Techew dish. PHOTO: ST FILE
Ingredients required to make braised duck, a traditional Techew dish.
Ingredients required to make braised duck, a traditional Techew dish. PHOTO: ST FILE
Madam Elsie Tan, the aunt of The Sunday Times Lifestyle writer Rebecca Lynne Tan, marinating a duck with dark soya sauce.
Madam Elsie Tan, the aunt of The Sunday Times Lifestyle writer Rebecca Lynne Tan, marinating a duck with dark soya sauce. PHOTO: ST FILE
The Sunday Times Lifestyle writer Rebecca Lynne Tan (left) learning how to braise a duck from her aunt, Madam Elsie Tan.
The Sunday Times Lifestyle writer Rebecca Lynne Tan (left) learning how to braise a duck from her aunt, Madam Elsie Tan. PHOTO: ST FILE

This story was first published in The Sunday Times on Jan 15, 2012.

I don’t speak Teochew. Zilch.

Ask me what Chinese dialect group I belong to, and I will proudly tell you that I am Teochew. But start speaking to me in the dialect, and I will very bashfully confess, with hand signals if need be, that I can neither understand nor speak a word.

It’s a shame I know, but we just don’t speak it at home as my mother speaks only English – she is Chinese-Australian.

Truth be told, I am not even sure of the terms for each of the dishes that we Teochews typically eat over the Chinese New Year.



    1 duck, about 2 to 2.5kg, head and feet discarded
    1 Tbs salt (to rub the duck)
    5 hard-boiled eggs, peeled
    2 pieces of tau kwa (firm tofu)
    Ingredients for marinade:
    1½ tsp five-spice powder
    ½ tsp salt
    ½ Tbs Tiger brand dark soya sauce (thick)
    Ingredients for braising liquid:
    1 Tbs cooking oil
    2 star anise
    20 cloves of garlic, peeled
    150g lengkuas (blue ginger), peeled and sliced thickly
    120g old ginger, peeled and sliced thinly
    100g gula melaka
    1.1 to 1.2 litres of water
    1 tsp ground white pepper
    1 tsp sesame oil
    1 1/4 Tbs honey
    2½ Tbs Hua Tiao Chinese cooking wine 
    3 1/4 Tbs Pearl River Bridge mushroom- flavoured superior dark soya sauce
    2 1/4 Tbs Tiger brand dark soya sauce (thick)
    3 Tbs Lee Kum Kee oyster sauce
    ½ tsp salt 


    1. Wash and clean the duck and its liver. Cut off the neck but keep it for cooking. Discard the head and the feet.
    2. Rub the entire duck, including the cavity, with salt and rinse thoroughly. You may repeat this step if the duck still smells gamey. Drain the duck and pat it dry with paper towels.
    3. Rub the duck, including the cavity, with five spice powder. Add 1/2 tsp of salt into the cavity and rub it in. Rub the dark soya sauce over the skin of the whole duck. Be sure to marinate the neck as well. Set duck aside.
    4. Add the cooking oil to a large, hot wok on high heat.
    5. Add star anise, followed by the garlic, and then the lengkuas and ginger. The lengkuas slices should be visibly thicker than the thin slices of ginger so that you will be able to differentiate between the two when the dish is done, as the lengkuas will need to be discarded.
    6. Fry these ingredients for a short while till fragrant, then add the gula melaka and continue to fry for about two minutes.
    7. Add water and stir. Add in the rest of the ingredients for the braising liquid and stir well. Let it boil for a few more minutes.
    8. Carefully lower the duck, neck and liver into the liquid. Lower the heat to medium after three minutes.
    9. Flip the duck every seven to 10 minutes, so that each side has a chance to be submerged in the braising liquid. This is to ensure that the duck will be evenly coloured at the end of the cooking process. The braising liquid should be bubbling briskly over a medium fire. 
    10. To flip the duck, you can insert a pair of chopsticks into the cavity and stand it up. Then carefully lay it back down in the liquid, other side up, with the help of a spatula. Alternatively, use a pair of tongs. Continue this process for the next hour at 10-minute intervals until the duck is tender yet firm when prodded with a fork.
    11. After about 20 minutes, prick the duck several times with a fork to release the oil under the skin.
    12. After about 30 minutes, remove the liver. It should be firm yet soft enough to be pricked with a fork.
    13. After about 45 minutes, remove the star anise. You may leave it longer if you prefer a stronger taste.
    14. After about 50 minutes, add the hard boiled eggs. They should sit in the liquid to absorb the colour.
    15. While the duck is cooking, wash the tau kwa. Drain and pat dry with paper towels and set aside.
    16. When the duck is cooked and sufficiently tender, and the eggs are evenly coloured, remove them from the braising liquid. Drain the liquid from the tau kwa one more time before adding it into the wok. Let it simmer in the braising liquid for 10 minutes.
    17. Remove the tau kwa and turn off the heat. Remove the thick slices of lengkuas, as well as the garlic, and discard. Using a spoon, remove the layer of oil that has formed on top of the braising liquid.
    18. Chop up the duck and slice the eggs and tau kwa. Serve with hot gravy and slices of ginger.
    Serves about six to eight people, if eaten with other dishes.
    Note: More eggs and tau kwa can be added. You may also add more or less honey, salt, soya sauce and pepper, to taste.

In general, I can name only a few dishes in Teochew – they are the ones I like: orh nee (yam paste), lor bak (braised pork) and lor ark (braised duck), which I finally learnt to make last week from my father’s third sister, Elsie. 

Lor ark is a staple at our reunion dinner, and thankfully, she is more than willing to share the recipe with me. 
Our reunion dinner is huge – about 30 to 40 people, depending on who is in town. There are different tables and several rounds of eating: tables for the aunts and uncles, and others for the kids. 

As a child, I was often told not to go into the kitchen at my second uncle’s house when the meals were being prepared so as not to get in the way. 

But I would sometimes peek into the kitchen, standing by the door to take in the various aromas of earthy spices and robust soups. At other times, I would play in the garden at the back of the house near the kitchen, so that I could pretend that I was part of all the action.

My older sister, Susan, is so excited to hear that I will be learning our Ah Ma’s braised duck recipe that she tags along, and so does my mother, who is of Cantonese descent and does not cook any Teochew dishes. The three of us are all pretty clueless as to how to make the Teochew-style braised duck even though we love to eat it.

I learn that the recipe has been passed down from my great-grandmother to my grandmother, to my aunt, and now to me. 

What a privilege – I had no idea my family had such old recipes. 

My mother, you see, really isn’t very conventional when it comes to Asian cooking. From her, I have learnt more Western-style recipes for cakes, scones, oxtail stew and shepherd’s pie.

My aunt, on the other hand, who is in her 60s, is from a fairly traditional Teochew household and still makes every dish from scratch.

She says my late grandmother taught her to make lor ark when she was about 12 years old, and she has been making it ever since.

In the old days, they would braise a goose, but she says she has not seen it in wet markets since the late 1960s.
But duck works just as well. 

Our family recipe calls for honey and gula melaka instead of rock sugar or white sugar, which many other recipes use. She says using honey makes the sweetness more subtle and also gives the dish just the right amount of balance.

Over the Chinese New Year, my aunt also prepares dishes such as stir-fried leeks with fa cai (black moss) and squid, steamed fish, Teochew raw fish salad, prawns in a tomato gravy, pig’s stomach soup and soup with treasures such as fish maw, dried scallops and abalone.

I have been eating her braised duck for as long as I can remember and it is one of my favourite dishes come Chinese New Year.

It is a typical Teochew dish which is also enjoyed all year round, only, since no one in my immediate family knew how to make it, we never ate it outside the festive season.

Rest assured, that will change now that we have the recipe for it.

The cooking lesson turns out to be more of an observation session.My aunt is so quick and adept at slicing the ginger, marinating the duck, and chopping it up after it is cooked that I just, well, let her.

But the one thing I have mastered, is rotating the duck as it sits in the braising liquid. The recipe calls for rotating it every 10 minutes so that each side will be evenly coloured when the dish is ready.

She demonstrates the act the first couple of times with much ease, shoving chopsticks into the cavity and flipping the duck such that it assumes an upright position before gently using a frying spatula to help lay it back into the bubbling liquid, other side up.

The first time I attempt the manoeuvre, she helps me. The second time I do it, I stop half way because the steam is so hot that it burns my hand. But I think I have it down pat after three tries – and no splashing too.

My sister and I discuss the “rotation” technique later that night and conclude that it is probably the way Ah Ma taught her to do it.

But by the time I get down to recreating the dish, I think I might just use a more modern utensil – a pair of tongs.

Then again, perhaps I should preserve at least part of my Teochew heritage, and stick to the chopsticks.