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Project Food Blog Challenge 4: How to Look Good Naked – If You’re a Duck

Did that really happen? Did I really make it through to Round 4? Thank you! THANK you EVERYONE for votes and support. I couldn’t have made it this far without you!

The challenge for this round is called Picture Perfect. Project Food blog would like us to use our amazing photographic skills to show you an instructional, step-by-step photo tutorial.

Bugger, thought I. This is where I could really do with my sister Emma’s help. Emma, the professional food and travel photographer, who should be helping me but just can’t drop by today and give me a hand because she’s in Brisbane, Australia, and I’m in Shanghai, PRC. Bugger.

So I called her up this morning and had a very expensive long-distance chat because I thought she might have some really fabulous technical tips for all of us budding food photographers. Like how to make a hunk of raw meat attractive, or more specifically, how to make the ugliest duck in the world look lovely in a photo. She told me I wasn’t really an ugly duck, although I was getting old.
I’m talking about the recipe! I said. Not me! Oh please…….

Here’s what she said:

Emma’s Tips for Technically Great Food Photos (and Fiona’s Reality Check)

1. Photograph in a room with good natural light (No worries, I’ll just move the entire small dark Chinese kitchen to a sunnier part of the house). The light should come from the side and slightly in front of you, so that shadows fall away behind you. 

2. Minimise shadows with a reflector or white drapes (I just made the bed. Now I have to take the sheets off again and hang them up in the living room? Are you serious?)

3. Use a tripod to get a different perspective on the dishes. If you have time, take shots from 3 different heights or angles for maximum interest (Oh yes, I’ll just debone that duck, race around to the other side of the camera and with my greasy dirty hands take 3 different and wildly interesting shots. Sure thing.)

4. If photographing unaided, use manual focus and a self-timer with a 20 second delay – time to position, then to relax. Otherwise, use a remote control held in your mouth. (Easy see? No hands! And can I make it work? No!)

5. Always have clean hands and fingernails. (Are you truly serious? In addition to the cooking, the photography, the styling and the writing, now I have to find time to get a manicure??…)

6. If your hands look too veiny, hold them in the air for 30 seconds, then take the shot (Hilarious! See how any shots I remembered to do this in…

7. Avoid blue plates. It doesn’t look that appetising. (Emma’s view, not mine. I quite like blue plates….)

8. Always give the food left at the end of the shoot to the photographer (Oh! that’s me!)

Anyhow….down to the real photo-tutorial. 

Kylie Kwong is an Australian Chinese chef and author, whose Sydney restaurant, Billy Kwong, is an all-time favourite of mine. Her signature dish is featured today – Crispy Skin Duck with Blood Plum Sauce, an intense sweet-savoury, spicy and tart combination with sour plums and twice cooked duck. It’s fabulous. I’ve served it with Chinese steamed buns from a recipe by David Chang of Momofuku fame. These sweet little steamed breads are very traditional in China’s north, and they’re easy and fun to make.

So today I’m going to teach you how to make both of these dishes, and when we’re done, I will have cooked my first duck at home, ever. Thanks PFB, I’m not afraid any more! I will cook duck! I will deep fry it! I will debone it! I will remember to debone it first and then deep fry it! Here goes….

Crispy Skin Duck with Blood Plum Sauce


  • 1 x 1.5 kg (3 lb) duck
  • 2 tablespoons Sichuan pepper and salt
  • 1/4 cup plain (all-purpose) flour
  • vegetable oil for deep frying
Sichuan Pepper and Salt
  • 3 tablespoons sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
Blood Plum Sauce
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 250g ripe blood plums (about 4-6)
  • 2/3 cup fish sauce
  • 6 whole star anise
  • 2 cinnamon quills
  • 1/3 cup lime juice


  • First make the sichuan pepper and salt
  • Dry roast the salt and sichuan pepper in a heavy based saucepan until the peppercorns begin to pop and become aromatic
  • Allow to cool
  • Grind to a powder in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder.
  • Makes 4 tablespoons

  • Rinse duck under cold water.
  • Trim away excess fat from inside and outside the cavity, but keep neck, parson’s nose and winglets intact.
  • Pat dry and rub the skin all over with two tablespoons of Sichuan pepper and salt. 
  • Cover duck and place in refrigerator overnight to marinate.

  • Transfer duck to a large steamer basket
  • Place basket over a pan of boiling water and steam, covered with a tight-fitting lid, for about 1 1/2 hours, or until the duck is cooked through (to test, insert a small knife between leg and breast – the juices should run clear)
  • Using tongs, gently remove duck from steamer and place on a tray, breast side up, to drain
  • Allow to cool slightly then transfer to refrigerator to cool further

  • Meanwhile, make the plum sauce.
  • Combine water and sugar in pan and bring to the boil.
  • Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes, or until slightly reduced.

  • Halve and de-seed plums. Leave skin intact.

  • Add the fish sauce and lime juice to the sugar and water mixture
  • Add the spices and plums
  • Simmer for 2 minutes
  • Remove pan from stove and keep sauce warm while you fry the duck

  • Place cooled duck breast-side up on a cutting board
  • Using a large knife or cleaver cut duck in half lengthways through breastbone and backbone

  • Carefully ease meat away from carcass, leaving thighs, legs and wings intact

  • You should now have two flat duck halves like this
  • Discard the bones

  • Lightly toss duck halves in flour to coat, shaking off any excess

  • Heat vegetable oil in a wok until the surface seems to shimmer slightly
  • Deep-fry duck halves, one at a time, for about 3 minutes, or until well-browned and crispy
  • Don’t forget to wear the best Chinese kitchen invention ever – arm covers to keep you protected from hot oil splashes!
  • Using tongs, carefully remove duck from hot oil

  • Drain duck halves well on kitchen paper
  • Leave to rest in a warm place for 5 minutes

  • With a large knife or cleaver, slice the duck
  • Arrange on a platter and spoon over the hot plum sauce
  • Serve with Chinese steamed buns – gently prise open the buns and place a piece of duck inside, or use it to mop up the delicious rich sauce.

Chinese Steamed Buns


  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon active dried yeast
  • 1 1/2 cups water at room temperature
  • 4 1/2 cups plain (all-purpose) flour
  • 6 tablespoons sugar
  • 3 tablespoons non-fat milk powder
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/3 cup pork or vegetable lard at room temperature

(makes 50 buns. Can be frozen for up to 3 months)


  • Combine yeast and water in a mixing bowl
  • Add all other ingredients and mix
  • Knead dough for about 8 minutes
  • Cover dough with a clean tea towel and leave in a warm place until dough has doubled in size, about 1 hour 15 minutes

  • Punch the dough down and turn it out onto a clean work surface
  • Using a knife or dough scraper, cut the dough in half, then divide each half into 5 equal pieces
  • Gently roll each piece into a log
  • Cut each log into 5 pieces, making 50 pieces total

  • Roll each piece into a ball
  • Cover the armada of little balls with a draping of plastic wrap
  • Allow them to rest and rise for 30 minutes
  • Meanwhile cut out fifty 10cm squares of parchment paper
  • Coat a chopstick with vegetable oil

  • Take a ball of risen dough and squash it flat with he palm of your hand
  • Use a rolling pin to roll it out into a 10cm long oval

  • Lay the oiled chopstick across the middle of the oval and fold the oval over onto itself to form the bun shape

  • Withdraw the chopstick, leaving the bun folded, and put the bun on a square of parchment paper
  • Let the buns rest and rise under a dry tea towel for a further 30-45 minutes 

  • Steam the buns in batches for 10 minutes

  • Buns can be used immediately – just gently pry the two halves apart and fill with succulent pieces of the duck.
  • Can also be frozen and used when needed by defrosting and then briefly steaming

  • Cook’s reward!!

Did you enjoy that fabulous duck? Voting for Challenge 4 opens Tuesday morning and continues through to Friday morning. Thanks to all voters, past, present and future!

You can view my other entries here:

Project Food Blog Challenge 3 – A mahjong lunch in four rounds
Project Food Blog Challenge 2 – The Great Xiaolongbao Experiment
Project Food Blog Challenge 1 – A Food-Filled Life in Shanghai