Credit: Photographed remotely by Earl Carter

Duck breast with kithul and grapes

O Tama Carey is the owner of Lankan Filling Station. Her first cookbook is Lanka Food. She is a food editor of The Saturday Paper.

Credit: Photographed remotely by Earl Carter

With the end of January fast approaching, it’s time to reflect. Have you spent the past few weeks eating and drinking too much? Entertaining and at parties? Dressing up and cleaning up? But even as the silly season winds down and life returns to normal, you may not yet be ready to give up on all the delicious foods and revert to a diet of salads. Well, luckily, I have just the dish for you.

Duck is by far my favourite bird to eat and, apart from being delicious, has an aura of elegance to it. This can, however, lead to a sense of unapproachability for those wanting to cook it. It’s not surprising when one of its most well-known iterations is Peking duck, a complicated process taking days of work where the skin of the bird is released from the flesh, the whole thing hung to dry and then glazed to cook. If you are in the right spot, you can be served this expertly by professionals who will carve slices of the glassy and crisp skin, with just a little flesh attached. This beautiful treat is then delicately placed on a chewy pancake and garnished with hoisin, shallot, cucumber and a little chilli, too, if you are feeling racy. The rest of the bird is whisked away to be turned into a second course of sang choy bow, which offers different flavours and textures but is equally delicious.

Cooking duck this way is very complicated and best left to trained chefs. There are, however, far simpler and less intimidating ways to enjoy this delicious creature. I admit that, as much as I love duck, I rarely cook it at home. But when I do, I wonder why I don’t do it more often. Roasting a whole duck is as easy as roasting a chicken, but for even more simplicity let us just focus on the breast. Happily, it tends to be the perfect size to be enjoyed by one person. The skin is perfect for crisping and has an excellent layer of protective and tasty fat. 

The strong and slightly gamy flavour of duck matches nicely with a bit of sweetness and here it’s served with a splash of kithul, an excellent but hard to find Sri Lankan ingredient that has a complex smoky, almost molasses-like flavour. It can be sourced in Sri Lankan grocers but if you want to cheat slightly you can substitute honey, although the result will be a bit sweeter. 

We have grapes – sweet but also a little fresh and tart – to balance the bitter delight of radicchio leaves.

The finished dish has a hint of glamour, which is something we all deserve, even for a quiet night at home. It’s easy to cook and, best of all, it happens in one pan. We’ve all washed enough dishes these past few weeks, haven’t we?


Serves 2

Time: 30 minutes preparation + cooking

  • salt flakes and black pepper for seasoning 
  • 2 duck breasts, at room temperature
  • 2 small handfuls of radicchio leaves 
  • 200g grapes, kept in small bunches
  • 40ml kithul (see note, left)
  • 80ml chicken stock
  • lemon juice
  1. Season your duck breasts heavily and then place them, skin-side down, in a cold heavy-based frypan, large enough to be roomy and happy to go in the oven. Place this frypan over a medium to high heat. Sit it there until you hear the duck skin start to sizzle and see some of the fat rendering (about one minute). Turn the heat to low and slowly cook the duck for another nine to 10 minutes, pouring any excess fat into a bowl along the way (save this to use later). By this stage the duck skin should be a lovely deep brown. 
  2. Flip the duck and cook for another two to three minutes before removing it from the frypan to sit somewhere warm to rest. 
  3. Keep the frypan on the stove, turn the heat up, add back enough of the fat so the base of the pan is covered and then add in your radicchio leaves and gently season. Cook the leaves until they wilt (about two minutes) and then remove them from the frypan and place them alongside the duck.
  4. Again, using the same pan still over a high heat, add in a bit more duck fat and then the grapes and drizzle kithul over them. Let all this sit on the heat for a minute before placing the frypan into a preheated fan-forced oven at 200°C for five minutes. 
  5. Remove the pan from the oven, place it back over a high heat, add in the chicken stock and let the mix come to a boil. Turn it to low and simmer for three minutes to thicken. At this stage you will have a nice sauce. Taste for seasoning and give it a squeeze of lemon to cut the sweetness. 
  6. While it’s simmering, divide your radicchio between two plates. Slice your breast pieces into half-centimetre slices and arrange one breast on each plate, trying to keep the shape of the breast. 
  7. Turn to your saucy number and divide the grapes along and atop the duck breasts before spooning over the sauce. 
  8. Eat immediately with a fresh green salad.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 28, 2023 as "Love a duck".

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