A dark day for ducks

-- but eating them sure beats dumping them


A Niigata sake brewery that would prefer to remain anonymous in this context, asked me to sit on a committee for an environmental trust they had just set up. They do brew the most excellent sake, so I happily agreed.

They were making some of their best sake with rice quite unpolluted by chemical pesticides. To achieve this they use ducks. In Japanese, the ones they favor are called ai-gamo, a domesticated mallard. Excellent idea. The ducks paddle around in the shallow water as the rice grows, quacking merrily and gobbling up insects and other pests. When the rice grains form, they have to be taken off the paddy so they don’t eat that, too.

But what happened next was that the ducks were disposed of as industrial raw garbage. In other words, they were killed, stuffed into barrels, and taken off to be incinerated.

When I heard of this I was profoundly shocked, incredulous — angry even. What reason could there be for this cruel waste?

One excuse was that it cost money to process the ducks for human food, and that restaurants serving duck could get theirs far cheaper from Taiwan or mainland China. Another excuse was that when the young ducks came off the paddy, there wasn’t that much meat on them and they needed to be kept and fed for about six weeks, at a cost of around 300 yen a bird.

When I suggested that the staff could deal with the ducks and enjoy them as a bonus, all I got were silly grins and the excuse that “we Japanese don’t know how to do such a thing.”

So, last year I took 300 young ducks off them, paid the 300 yen per bird, and we killed, plucked, cleaned and prepared them as food. Having no intention to sell them (which would have been illegal anyway), I shared them with friends all over Japan. Everybody who ate them said they were the finest-tasting ducks, and they were as incredulous as I that such fine food should ever have been wasted.

Partying on ‘waste’

I also took a dozen or so ducks to my friend’s inn, a traditional establishment beside the rushing mountain stream at Kibune, Kyoto. There we held a mottainai — or “what a waste” — party, serving these salvaged ducks and various cuts of venison and wild boar that are commonly discarded in Japan, as well as other delicacies such as bread made from used barley mash from our local brewery here in Kurohime. (It is truly excellent bread, by the way). To this party we invited several chefs and owners of traditional Japanese restaurants. Most of these people, like me, were raised to consider the waste of food a crime.

This year we invited the famous chef Yoshihiro Murata, of the Kikunoi restaurant in Kyoto, and 14 other young chefs and owners of traditional establishments, to come to my place in Kurohime and take part in a “duckfest.” Murata felt strongly about this waste of good food, and thought it an excellent opportunity for young chefs to participate through the whole process of converting a live duck to a gastronomic delight.

Here in Kurohime, I have a husband and wife team, Mr. and Mrs. Ishii, working for me, and Mrs. Ishii’s father, Osamu Hishihara, is an expert in processing poultry, having been in the yakitori business for 40 years. Last year he came here to help us, and this year he came again. We processed 230 ducks this year, saving the last 30 for our visitors.

They all came from Kyoto on Dec. 4., staying at the nearby Tatsunoko pension. Hishihara demonstrated how to grab, immobilize, kill, pluck and clean a duck — wasting nothing but the feathers, feet and intestines. Then the young chefs got on with it.

It was very chilly outside, so we’d set up large tents, tables, cutting boards, buckets for waste and for water, racks to hang the dead birds, and a boiler for the pot of scalding water needed to dip the ducks in so they become easy to pluck. So we could take a dip ourselves after our labors, I also filled our outside tub with warm water and lit the sauna. And there was chilled beer and wine standing by for anybody exhausted by the ordeal.

A few of the ducks attempted to escape execution, and I was relieved that none of our neighbors caught sight of the yelling people waving knives and chasing around my backyard after loudly quacking, flapping birds doing their desperate best to get airborne.

By the time darkness came, all was quiet on the duck front, and our feezer was filled to the brim with the finest poultry — whole, quartered, smoked and with neat packages of livers, hearts and gizzards ready for future yakitori parties.

That night we had a duck feast at Tatsunoko. Large black stone dishes were heated and then kept hot on gas burners set on the tables. The thinly sliced duck meat, complete with the fatty skin, was quickly seared on the hot stone. In the middle of each dish were fresh bean sprouts, which soaked up the fat oil and stopped if from smoking. The seared duck meat was then dipped in grated daikon mixed with lime juice, soy sauce and a dash of Japanese pepper.

After the meat and vegetables were eaten, a duck-bone broth was put into the stone dishes. To this were added finely sliced Japanese leeks, then freshly rolled and cut buckwheat noodles. We even had some of that famous sake to go with our feast.

Whatever will we do with all the rest of the ducks? We’ll eat them prepared in a dozen different ways. Some will get smoked. A lot are being sent as gifts to friends all over Japan — with fresh oysters, squid, octopus, dried fish, wild boar meat, venison, sake, beer and wine being sent in return.

It beggars belief, but can you imagine tasty young ducks being incinerated as “industrial raw garbage”?

And if some puffed-up government official comes to tell me it’s illegal to kill and process ducks myself . . . he can go quack himself.