Duck and green peppercorn sauce may be a Parisian bistro staple, but inspiration for this dish came from Kerala, the region in southwestern India known for its “backwaters,” a series of canals, both manmade and natural, where most of the region’s commerce and transport take place.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to spend a week on a repurposed rice boat, cruising Kerala's canals and lakes, stopping on land to visit temples and cultural high points, to feast on classic Keralan food, and to stop at various islands to meet and eat with people. Kerala has large Jewish, Muslim, and ancient Syrian-Christian populations, and all of these religions affect the cuisine.
Because peppercorns are a big cash crop in Kerala and ducks are obviously abundant, splashing about in all that water, the combination makes sense. In the French manner, green peppercorns are used to flavor a creamy, meat stock/sauce that is heavy and cloaks the delicate duck breast.
But in this Keralan version, no cream is to be seen, and warming Indian spices, like clove and cardamom, make their way into the marinade, which adds a depth of flavor not found in the French version.
Truthfully, the ducks in Kerala were often quite tough and gamey and I sometimes longed for a little French refinement in their preparation. So when I got back to the States, I started to play. I focused solely on the duck breast: I cooked it long and slow on its skin to crisp it up and render out the fat, then flipped it at the end—but only briefly, so that I finished with a perfectly cooked, medium done duck breast.
The tiny potatoes are a western combination, of course, but adding the coconut oil, green chile, and cilantro brings India back into the gastronomic picture. Their bright, sharp flavors play well with the spiciness of the green peppercorn sauce and the rich meatiness of the duck breast.
Although the technique for cooking the duck breast requires some time and patience, this is ultimately an easy dish to prepare—and slightly evocative of the romance of the Kerala backwaters.
- 2 tablespoons whole green peppercorns, divided
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground clove
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1 pound tiniest potatoes you can find (about 1-inch in diameter is perfect)
- 2 1-pound boneless duck breasts with skin
- 2 cloves peeled garlic, smashed with the flat of a knife
- 1 cup homemade chicken stock
- 1 tablespoon unrefined raw coconut oil
- 1 jalapeño, slivered
- 1/2 cup roughly chopped cilantro
What's your favorite way to prepare duck? Tell us in the comments!