New Years in Japan is kind of like Thanksgiving in the United States: a time for family to get together, eat all the most delicious things they can possibly concoct, and enjoy a couple of days completely free of work and worries. In the run-up to all that, most families right now are frantically cooking, cleaning, and rice-cake-making. But out in the country tonight, one family was busy with a different kind of chore.
On this snowy late December evening, my husband and I decided to stop by the house of a couple we’re friends with . . . and found them in the process of butchering nine ducks! Well, technically not regular ducks but “aigamo,” a cross between wild and domestic ducks. Aigamo are popular with organic rice farmers across Asia, who put them to work as living weed-eaters in the spring and summer, then feast on their tasty meat in the winter. This year our friends the T’s raised forty aigamo ducks in their rice paddies. When we stopped by they were doing away with the last of them.
We came into the warm cozy kitchen, rolled up our sleeves, and got to work plucking the ducks’ abundant down and singeing off the remaining pinfeathers with a blowtorch. Meanwhile Mr. T, a former butcher legendary for his skill with the knife, was neatly deboning and slicing the plucked birds into serving-size pieces (Mr. T thinks nothing of going out to kill a chicken at 7 in the morning and having it ready for a 7:30 chicken breakfast. He also raises guinea pigs for meat in his front yard and has been known to enjoy an occasional raccoon dinner). Here in Japan, chickens and ducks are rarely roasted whole. Instead, the chef or butcher prepares the meat in the kitchen, then brings it to the table in easy-to-eat pieces. This also saves freezer space, since carcasses are immediately turned into soup, fat rendered and poured into jars, and only the compact chunks of meat are stored.
On the other side of the counter, Mrs. T, who trained as a chef, was slicing up a raw duck breast with equally deft movements of her knife. As she worked I had a chance to ask about the process of raising the ducks. She told me that although some farmers raise their own chicks, most purchase ducklings each spring. The chicks go into the field with the new rice seedlings in May; since full-grown ducks would quickly eat the tender young rice shoots, they can’t be used. The babies, on the other hand, leave the rice alone and nibble on tender weeds.
As the ducklings and their appetites grow, the T’s begin to supplement their diet with kitchen scraps and other feed. By this time the ducks will have done away with most of the weeds in the paddy, rendering one of the most time-consuming farm chores unnecessary. When grain begins to form on the rice stalks in August, the ducks are removed from the paddy to prevent them from eating the crop. But since they are still fairly small and lean, the T’s fatten them for a few months before slaughtering them. Then the cycle begins again the next May. (For more on aigamo rice farming, check out The Power of Duck, a book by pioneering organic farmer Takao Furuno.)
By this time, the nine ducks were neatly divided into piles of necks, bones, meat, fat, and heads, and it was time for a special Japanese farmer’s treat. Mrs. T had arranged the slices of meat in a pretty rose pattern and set them on the low dining table along with small dishes of soy sauce and chopsticks. Time for everyone to dig into . . . duck sashimi! At first I was at skeptical of this delicacy, and asked a few impolite questions about salmonella. The T’s assured me that because the animals had been slaughtered just hours before, and were raised outside in clean conditions, it was perfectly safe to indulge. I took a deep breath and sampled the meat. Tasty – but for safety’s sake not something I’d recommend you try at home.
So how will you be celebrating the New Year? As for us, it looks like we’ll be welcoming the Year of the Rabbit with roast duck.