These days, having chicken for Christmas dinner is quite commonplace in Japan, whether it’s made at home or carried there in a paper bucket. But chicken doesn’t have that long a history as an everyday food source.
Until the Meiji Era (1868-1912), when Western poultry farming methods were introduced, chickens, especially roosters, were primarily fighting birds or ornamental pets, although shamo- nabe, a hot pot made with the fighting shamo chicken, was enjoyed.
However, another bird that appears on holiday feast tables at this time of year in Europe has been eaten for many hundreds of years in Japan — the humble duck or kamo.
The original inhabitants of Japan were hunter-gatherers, and wild game including various fowl such as pheasants and wild ducks (magamo) were a regular part of their diets.
Domesticated ducks entered Japan via China sometime in the seventh or eighth centuries, and they remained acceptable to eat along with other fowl even when the eating of four-legged animals such as boar became taboo due to the spread of Buddhism, with various edicts prohibiting or restricting their consumption over the years.
In the late 19th century an ancient form of farming that utilized domesticated ducks, in particular the aigamo (a cross between the common domesticated duck and the wild mallard), was revived.
Aigamo were released into rice paddies during the growing season to reduce weeds and insects, aerate the water by paddling around and also add some natural fertilizer.
However, in the period after World War II, especially during the “economic miracle” of the 1960s, the practice died out because the ducks were being poisoned and dying thanks to the heavy use of chemical pesticides that was in vogue at the time.
However, since the early 1990s, with the increasing interest in less chemical-dependent farming methods worldwide, aigamo farming has started to make a comeback.
Since aigamo are domesticated ducks, it’s illegal to release them into nature after their work for the season is done, which is one reason why duck dishes such as kamo nabe (duck hot pot) became popular in the winter.
Most duck meat sold these days has been bred for that purpose, however. Meat from wild duck is rarely available now since hunting them is strictly regulated.
The recipe for pan-roasted duck is great served warm or cold, and works well as part of a Western meal like Christmas dinner or a Japanese one, such as the New Year’s osechi ryōri.
The sauce used is a mix of European and Japanese flavors, and you can tip the scale to one or the other side by serving grainy mustard or wasabi on the side.
Pan-roasted duck breast with wine sauce
- Two main course servings of kamo rōsu or 8-10 small osechi or appetizer servings
- 800 grams boneless duck breast (two medium breasts)
- 250 ml fruity red wine (leftover Beaujolais nouveau works very well)
- 2 tablespoons mirin
- 2 tablespoons Calvados or brandy
- 75 ml (five tablespoons) dark soy sauce
- garnish such as watercress, chrysanthemum leaves (shungiku) or finely shredded leek
- wasabi or grainy mustard
Trim off any excess fat around the duck breasts. Make crisscross cuts on the skin side, about two-thirds of the way through the fat layer. Cover and leave the breasts until they reach room temperature.
Heat up a frying pan over medium heat. Do not add any oil. Place the duck breasts in the pan skin side down and cook until golden brown. Pour off the fat periodically.
Once the skin side is browned, take the breasts out, pour off any remaining fat, wipe out any remaining fat with a paper towel, and return the breasts to the pan. Cook for an additional 4-5 minutes.
Take the breasts out of the pan and wrap them in a large piece of aluminum foil. Leave to rest for 10-15 minutes.
In the meantime, combine the wine, sake, mirin, brandy and soy sauce in a pan that’s just large enough for the breasts to fit in. Bring to the boil then simmer over medium-low heat for 10 minutes to boil off the alcohol. Add the breasts to the pan skin side up, put on a tight fitting lid and turn off the heat. Leave for at least 20 minutes.
To serve warm as a main course or appetizer: Take the duck out of the sauce and put the pan back on the heat.
Boil over medium-high heat until the sauce has reduced by half and is slightly syrupy. Add the duck to the pan and turn to coat with the sauce. Slice the duck thinly to serve with garnish and a little grainy mustard.
To serve cold in osechi or as a Japanese style appetizer: Leave the pan until it has cooled down to room temperature.
Transfer the duck and the sauce to a storage container, cover and refrigerate for at least six to eight hours (up to 3 days), turning the breasts a couple of times a day.
Remove any fat in the sauce. Serve the duck thinly sliced with wasabi.