What's in season

A Taste for Duck

Bold spices and a flavorful pan sauce amp up chef Meherwan Irani’s decadent duck

Photo: John Burgoyne

Meherwan Irani had his first taste of duck while visiting his brother in Australia in 2005. “It was a near religious experience,” says the executive chef and co-owner of the Chai Pani Restaurant Group and the spice company Spicewalla. “We went to a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant known for its crispy duck. I was in awe of the shatteringly crisp skin paired with the unctuous meatiness of the flesh. After I finished, I was eyeing the next table’s order so longingly that they offered me some.” A few years later, Irani quit his job in sales to open his first restaurant, the James Beard Award–winning Chai Pani in Asheville, North Carolina, where duck landed on the menu. “I find it more versatile than red meat, and more delicious and forgiving than chicken,” he says. 

With duck season opening in November across much of the South, it’s a great time to refine your cooking technique. (Even if you’re purchasing fresh pasture-raised duck, the breasts will be fattier and more succulent in fall and winter.) To balance the fattiness and slight gaminess, Irani likes to pair duck with Asian flavors like soy sauce or plum sauce, or with robust, warming spices inspired by his upbringing in India, such as cinnamon, cardamom, and coriander (see recipe). And the key to a successful pan-cooked breast, he says, is properly scoring and rendering the fat—i.e., melting the fat at a medium to low temperature so it doesn’t burn—to achieve perfectly crispy skin and tender meat. “That fat, that glorious fat, helps cook the duck while also rendering out to become a ghee of the gods,” he says. “There’s a sexiness to duck that’s just unmatched by most meats.”


  • Spice-Crusted Duck Breasts in Coconut Curry Pan Sauce (Yield: 2 servings)

  • For the duck

    • 2 (8 oz.) duck breasts, skin on (mallard works well)

    • Kosher salt

  • For the spice blend

    • 6 dried red Thai chiles

    • 2 pods green cardamom

    • 1 star anise

    • 1½-inch stick of cinnamon, broken

    • 2 whole cloves

    • 2 tbsp. coriander seeds

    • 1 tbsp. cumin seeds

    • 1 tsp. fennel seeds

    • ½ tsp. poppy seeds

    • 10 whole black peppercorns

    • Coconut oil

  • For the Coconut Curry Pan Sauce

    • 1 tbsp. ginger, grated

    • ¼ tsp. turmeric powder

    • ¼ tsp. red chile powder

    • 1 cup chicken or vegetable stock

    • 1 cup full-fat canned coconut milk

    • 1 lime, juiced


  1. In a large skillet, toast spices on medium-low, stirring and mixing for about 2 to 3 minutes, taking care not to burn. Cool, then blend in a coffee grinder. Mix a few drops of coconut oil into the spice blend until you have a crumbly paste.

  2. Using a sharp knife, score the duck skin diagonally about halfway down through the fat in a crisscross pattern. Season generously with salt. Apply the spice paste liberally to both sides of the breast, working it into scored skin.

  3. Heat a heavy skillet over low heat and place duck breasts skin side down. Adjust heat to medium-low—the fat should sizzle but not “pop.” Once skin is crispy, about 15 minutes, flip breasts. Cook for 2 to 3 more minutes, until internal temperature is 130°F. Let rest on a wire rack while you make the pan sauce.

  4. In the same skillet used to cook the breasts, heat a couple of tablespoons of the leftover duck fat over medium-high heat. Add ginger, turmeric, and chile powder. Stir for 30 seconds, then deglaze with stock, scraping the bottom to release crispy bits. Once it’s simmering, add coconut milk and return to simmer. Reduce to medium-low and cook for 5 to 7 minutes to thicken. Finish with lime juice. 

  5. To serve: Cut breasts into ¼-inch diagonal slices. Serve over basmati rice with the sauce. Garnish with cilantro.