Some may say that a defining part of the British supermarket experience is the unique way of determining one's socioeconomic status based on the store they choose to shop at (Hawley). Some may also say that we can find any opportunity to queue in a supermarket, including the final hour before closing when a member of staff is discounting items with sell-by dates. For me, a quintessential part of perusing through the brightly lit aisles is stopping by the shelves that are almost always closest to the entrance to immediately entice my appetite—the meal deals.
If you are unfamiliar, supermarket meal deals are often a combination of a drink, a snack, and a sandwich/wrap/pasta pot, for a total of approximately £3.00 depending on where you shop. They are a staple for people that want to purchase a quick meal within a budget that still prioritizes flexibility, choice, and customization.
When I used to do all-nighters at the University library, I was powered purely on the might of multiple meal deals. These meal deals were often a large-size cold cappuccino (because it was the most expensive drink to get discounted), a 'sharing portion' packet of Big Hula Hoops (no chance I was sharing), and a hoisin duck wrap. Even before I went to university, my family and I gravitated towards meal deals for sustenance on the go, and I would seek out hoisin duck wraps over any other sandwich option because it sounded more interesting than having chicken mayo, chicken and bacon, chicken caesar salad, or chicken and sweetcorn.
'Hoisin duck' was shorthand for pieces of duck with hoisin sauce, lettuce, and cucumber (if the supermarket was feeling bold and generous) all bound together in a flour wrapper cut into two halves. No matter the drink or snack, I found familiarity and sanctuary in a hoisin duck wrap. I would sail through the entrance, the overhead heating blowing through my messy bun, and my eyes would lock onto the line of hoisin duck wraps with laser focus—as if I was a beagle during hunting season.
It felt like it didn't matter which supermarket I went to, they would almost always have hoisin duck as an option on their meal deal shelves. So I decided to put that theory to the test: can I find hoisin duck wraps in almost every supermarket? How do they differ depending on where you shop? Why is hoisin duck as a sandwich option almost as common as chicken and bacon, or tuna and mayonnaise, in the UK?
Moreover, I wanted to learn the history behind duck and hoisin sauce as a food combination, its history and role in British cuisine, and most importantly - why do British supermarkets choose to profit from food combinations commonly associated with Asian cuisines?
I have tried (almost) every supermarket's hoisin duck wrap to review and analyze so you don't have to. Is it a flavour combination savoured by the nation, or a potential abomination to the legacy of cooked birds with fruity sauces? Let’s discuss this further.
What is hoisin duck?
Well…‘hoisin duck’ as a term technically is not a dish. Grab a snack and let me explain.
No surprise, tortillas are not authentic to Chinese cuisine, nor any East-Asian cuisine. This soft and flexible flatbread derives from Mexico. According to Britannica, maize would have been traditionally boiled with unslaked lime to soften the corn kernels; “this lime was the principle source of calcium in the Mexican diet”. Tortillas can accompany most Mexican dishes either in their soft discus form or transformed into tacos, enchiladas, burritos, or tostadas. A metamorphic carbohydrate!
Britannica adds that tortillas “stale quickly and are usually bought fresh daily or even for each meal”, which makes it all the more impressive that mass manufactured meal deal wraps often have tortillas with soggy bottoms. I can see why tortillas are used as the ideal candidate for wraps considering their versatility, but it is important to point out how much of a cultural quagmire it is for shops to produce hoisin duck wraps from bread to bird.
Moving onto the wrap’s primary condiment, Britannica also describes hoisin sauce as:
"A commercially prepared, thick reddish-brown sauce used in Chinese cuisine both as an ingredient in cooking and as a table condiment. Made from soybeans, flour, sugar, water, spices, garlic, and chili, it is sweet and spicy. It is used in cooking shellfish and fatty meats such as pork and duck. As a condiment, hoisin sauce is eaten with shrimp, pork, and poultry and is invariably served with Peking duck." (Britannica Hoisin Duck).
When searching for the history of 'hoisin duck' in search engines, I was more likely to find results about Peking duck than hoisin duck. Peking duck is a type of roasted duck originating from Beijing. Published on National Geographic, Fuchsia Dunlop provides a timeline of Peking ducks and describes a complex history; when cooked perfectly, the duck is "plump and glossy, its skin is an enticing caramel and entirely smooth", almost like a decadent piece of polished wood furniture (Dunlop). For the traditional and ritualistic experience, a long, thin and rectangular blade (pianya dao) is specifically used for carving. Pancakes are then “laid with slices of duck and shards of leek and cucumber”, and finally rolled for eating.
It is a striking yet complimentary combination of rich gamey meat marinated in a sticky decadent sauce with a splash of mild and refreshing vegetables. Sound familiar? It should if you at any point have experienced a hoisin duck wrap, whether it be eating as many as there are pigeons in a city, or passing by the improper rhombus shapes these wraps are packaged in like strangers that keep spotting each other at the same Tesco.
Dunlop continues to explain that Peking duck “originated from Hangzhou in the 13th century” as roasted ducks were “served door-to-door by street vendors, and it became a speciality of nearby Nanjing” (Dunlop). It is said that the dish was originally known as ‘Jinling roast duck’ because Jinling was the previous name for Nanjing during this period. Furthermore, the traditional method for Peking duck is laborious yet has a great amount of care.
To paraphrase, the process involved fattening white ducks that are reared outside the city, butchering and plucking, a pump to make the duck plump before roasting, removing innards, tightening the skin with hot water, wind drying, painting “with maltose syrup to help colour it a rich mahogany”, pouring boiling water over the bird, and oven-roasting. It is almost as if the detailed execution of Peking duck is the culinary equivalent of proudly showcasing a prize duck—a succulent combination of technique, skill, and theatre (Dunlop).
Moreover, the recipe for Peking duck provided by the National Geographic article lists hoisin sauce to serve with the final dish, further emphasising that hoisin sauce is for Peking duck. Based on the definition provided by Britannica, it makes sense why Peking duck is more likely to appear in search results. Therefore, we can conclude that 'hoisin duck' is a short-handed, commercialised way of describing Peking duck with hoisin sauce.
The history behind Peking duck and the authentic methods of cooking highlight two important points:
1) Food manufacturers for British supermarkets are unlikely to follow these traditional cooking methods in favour of machine equipment, time, and efficiency to deliver a product that will simply 'do the job'.
2) The expectations to have for hoisin duck wraps are set high when you compare it to its origins and the initial ways it was cooked, presented, and consumed in a restaurant setting.
With a better understanding of 'hoisin duck' labels being more likely referring to a variation of Peking duck (and its iconic hoisin sauce), I am presented with another question for this review: to what extent can the expectations of eating Peking duck be compared to the experience of eating hoisin duck wraps? I think we already have somewhat of an idea that the history of Peking duck combined with Chinese cuisine in British history somewhat clash - the origins and history versus modern mass consumption. Arguably, a clash is presented because the survival of Chinese flavours in Britain most likely depended on British consumers and their non-Chinese palette.
Britain and Chinese cuisine: Bite-Sized
Although Britain’s history with China and its culinary cultural heritage can be dated as far back as the 17th century, I would argue that one of the key examples to illustrate how Chinese flavours are commonly consumed in modern Britain is the emergence of Chinese takeaways in the latter part of the 20th century.
"During the 1950s and 60s Britain saw an increase in its Chinese community due to the influx of Hong Kong Chinese. Many of these newcomers went into the restaurant business, setting up takeaways across the UK, with much of their hard-earned money going back to Hong Kong to support family there. Several Chinese takeaways cleverly adapted to their British customers’ tastes in food by offering buttered bread, pies and chips alongside Chinese dishes. The prosperous 1960s, however, also saw a rise in eating out and a more adventurous approach to sampling different cuisines. Today, Chinese food is very much part of the British diet, widely available in the ready-meal form, eaten in restaurants and bought from takeaways, while upmarket Chinese restaurants are now winning Michelin stars and glowing reviews." (British Library Chinese restaurants).
This emphasises how many Briton's experiences with Asian cuisine may come from Chinese takeaways, which have adapted to Britain's increasing interest in convenience and ready-made food *as well as* adapting to a national palette that is generally unfamiliar with Chinese produce and spice combinations. This is a diplomatic way of saying that the 'B' in Britain stands for bland, so Chinese takeaways are going to differ from authentic Chinese cuisine because of that.
Why do I care about duck wraps?
This is a very valid question to ask. Trying and reviewing every type of a specific food item from various businesses is not a new venture on the internet, but it becomes my conquest in the sandwich-adjacent arena when apparently certain Meal Deal prices are going to increase during Britain’s economic calamity (Race). Swinging about the phrase ‘cost of living’ in daily British conversation is almost like seeing a taxidermy squirrel shoot out of a rocket. It’s morbid and baffling, but acceptance and laughter are the only stages of grief you can grasp in this situation.
Like many, I eat to cope. And the idea that a Clubcard may not be enough to give me salvation in sweet, sweet savings was a first-world problem I disdain to find on my 2022 bingo card. However, I think the key reason why I care is that I know they could be better. I know deep in the broth that runs through my veins that hoisin duck wraps are not, and never will be, the epitome of Chinese food in Britain—but I am heavily invested in curiosity. If I were to sample (almost) all hoisin duck varieties in supermarkets, which one is the top bird? What are supermarkets inspired by and possibly aiming for? In other words, I wanted to know how low the bar has been set. Based on historic tradition in contrast to modern practice, how far has the bar sunken - modestly or devastatingly?
This history of hoisin duck as Peking duck alongside the history of Chinese food in modern Britain can inform us why Chinese flavours are often less potent, aromatic, or rich in depth when produced for mass consumption, low cost, or convenience in Britain. Therefore, it may be a little-to-no surprise that the flavours in hoisin duck wraps are more likely to be one-note rather than rich in complexity. It may be the reason why I get more spritely energy from a bite of crunchy cucumber than I do with any supermarket’s version of shredded duck mixed with plum adjacent sauce.
Alternatively, I was just very hungry. That being said, let’s see how five supermarket versions of hoisin duck wraps have satisfied my hunger during a very extended lunch break.
The Wrap Wreview
Based on what we currently know, that being ‘hoisin duck’ is an adjacent variant to Peking duck with hoisin sauce, we could (or should) expect the following when eating a hoisin duck wrap from a British supermarket:
The duck is to be prepared as slices
Fresh vegetables, such as cucumber
A thick, savoury sauce containing garlic, soybeans, and spices, with some sweetness
The pancake (or tortilla, in this case) to perfectly hold all the elements
There are a few factors to consider before reading my reviews:
I do not have the most sophisticated palette, so I may not be able to pick out any specific nuances or differences in comparison to those that are more critical of their food. I just enjoy food a lot and thought this would be a fun experiment.
I have not included the total prices of these wraps when discounted in a meal deal, the prices shown are what you would pay if you were to buy the wrap alone without a snack or drink.
Due to budgetary constraints, I am not able to purchase multiple duck wraps from the same supermarket names (in the same or different locations) to assess the consistency of tastes and textures. This means that my reviews will be based on *one* wrap from each supermarket rather than a sample of multiple.
The integrity of the wraps may be impacted by factors such as moisture or handling after purchase before eating as these were all collected the same day. This means that I will not be judging the wrap too harshly on appearance or the wrapper's ability to withstand travel unless it is a contributing factor to the overall taste experience I have.
Based on these factors, this is not a conclusive review and can be subject to change if I were to purchase and taste them again on another day. With that being said, these are my reviews in convenient table form!
Eat & Go Hoisin Duck Wrap: “Cooked Duck With Hoisin Sauce, Cucumber, Spinach And Spring Onion In A Roti Wrap”
Wrapper: No visible sauce leaks from the bottom of the wrap thick but soft to chew through. In the middle of the wrap is a thick portion of tightly wound wrapper with no filling which makes the wrap halves appear underfilled. Tastes like white bread.
Duck: Two visible chunks of duck per half, bottom piece looks like shredded duck at first but is whole if you peek into the wrap after the first bite. Medium amount of bite, not super tender and a little dry since it's separate from the sauce, but not tough or hard to chew through either.
Sauce: A thick, deep and clear brown color. Not mixed with the shredded duck, no distinct flavour profile. Doesn’t leak out of the wrap and no presence of plum.
Vegetables: Plenty of soft and unbruised spinach proportional to the sauce, and only two rings of spring onion per wrap. The spinach appears and tastes fresh which is nice but because it is quite a soft leaf in comparison to something like lettuce, it doesn’t provide enough contrast or variety in texture.
Hoisin Duck: “Cooked shredded duck with hoisin plum sauce, lettuce, cucumber and spring onion in a wheat wrap”
Wrapper: Contains E-numbers in the ingredients list. The wrapper loosely holds its shape when taken out of the container but is not tightly wrapped around the filling. Be careful when wearing any clothes that might stain because I wasn’t; when I took a bite of the bottom of the wrap, the sauce leaked out of the bottom, this might be user-error but because there is so much sauce at the bottom, it is hard to avoid this problem without the wrapper being more resilient. You may need to take the entire bottom of the wrap in one bite to avoid this, and eating a mouthful of only wrapper and sauce may only be appealing to a few—especially with the vinegary aftertaste of the sauce.
Duck: Duck stock contains E-numbers in the ingredients list. The only texture experience I had was soft and mushy. You would not be able to tell this was a duck if you have not had this before.
Sauce: A little cloudy in color. Plum juice concentrate is the fourth highest ingredient in the sauce after water, sugar, and fermented bean paste. Definitely can taste plum more than anything else but is not sweet, in fact it has a subtle sharp aftertaste which you may associate with vinegar, as included in the ingredients list. Approximately half of the sauce was mixed into the shredded duck and the other half settled into the bottom of the wrap, which means the final bites of the wraps are slightly unpleasant if you are not a fan of solely eating a pool of sauce with wrapper and a few pieces of leftover lettuce. Not an even distribution of each component.
Vegetables: Ingredients do not specify what type of lettuce, but based on appearance I can only assume gem lettuce which makes sense as it is crunchy but has a mild flavour. A definite and audible crunch from the lettuce, and the only thing to provide a refreshing contrast to balance the duck and sauce.
Always Delicious No Mayo Hoisin Duck Wrap: “Shredded roast British duck with hoisin sauce, cucumber, spinach and spring onions in a wheat flour tortilla”
Wrapper: The ‘outer layer’ of the wrapper peels off at the bottom edges of the wrap from where there are the more defined folds. This may lead to sauce leaking out at the bottom if you have a firm grip on the base or middle part of the wrap. Little to no taste—white bread adjacent.
Duck: Some of the duck that was shredded was a soft mush but some of it was a whole piece and there was some visible rosiness in the centre of the whole piece—which is the first time I’ve seen this rosiness so far in comparison to a uniform brown-grey colour from well-done cooking. Shows some amount of thought into how the duck is best cooked but when it’s in wrap form it doesn’t make much of a difference with taste, even though this may be why I got the most duck flavour from this part of the wrap in comparison to other wraps.
Sauce: A very appealing, deep and rich colour that is reminiscent of a medium soy sauce reduction. The final ingredient of soy sauce (separate from the Hoisin sauce which is higher in the ingredients list) contains E-numbers. I taste some sweetness, and it has a subtle acidity or tang that I can only describe as subdued ginger or garlic—a little bit of sharpness in the initial bite that immediately disappears and doesn’t leave an aftertaste. A small pool of sauce at the bottom of the wrapper.
Vegetables: Minimal amount of spring onion, but is sharp and clean so provides a little bit of variety in taste and texture. Spinach is packed into folded layers within the wrapper so slightly wrinkled but not bruised or wilted. One long wedge of cucumber per wrap. The triangular shape is a bit smushed and blunt, but it still has a satisfactory crunch. Although there is only one piece of cucumber per half, there is more cucumber than spring onion. The cucumber is the most refreshing part but because there wasn’t much of it, so the fresh contrast to offset the duck and sauce isn’t evenly balanced. This wrap so far has the most variety in texture.
On the go Duck & Hoisin with cucumber and spring onion: “Marinated British duck in hoisin sauce with lettuce, cucumber, spring onion and coriander in a tortilla wrap”
Wrapper: Structurally sound at the bottom and decently wraps the filling without being loose or tight, although most of the filling is concentrated in the middle of the wrapper so the outer layers are left bare unless some of the sauce spills over from the top. I will give it points for an even distribution of duck and sauce from top to bottom of the wrapper. You don’t get any vegetables in the final bits but finding duck at the bottom of the wrap was a pleasant and welcome surprise after previously experiencing puddles of liquidy sauce that could ruin (another) one of my hoodies.
Duck: Barely any texture other than springy mush, like a monolithic mass of cotton threads soaked in cold water.
Sauce: More liquid than viscous and sticky. Slightly mixed in with the duck and not much of a distinct flavour to even tell what kind of sauce this is other than barely savoury with a quiet suggestion of sweetness.
Vegetables: Lettuce appears the most wrinkled and wilted, there is a feeble amount of equally feeble slices of cucumber that you can barely notice. Spring onion is mild and does little to help to provide any tang or texture.
Tesco Hoisin Duck Wrap: “Marinated duck, hoisin sauce, lettuce, cucumber and spring onion in a wheat flour tortilla. [...] Tortilla filled with shredded duck, hoisin sauce, cucumber and lettuce CAREFULLY HAND PACKED EVERY DAY”
Wrapper: Tortilla loosely holds onto the filling, but it feels like you need to wind it up a little tighter to avoid the filling falling out whilst eating. The Top ‘layer’ flakes a little near the bottom folds of the wrapper base.
Duck: A super slight rosiness in parts of the duck, but you can barely tell with the sauce and shredded mush. There was a large chunk of unshredded duck at the very bottom of the wrap, so it’s nice that the duck was evenly distributed but because there was no sauce left by the time I got to the bottom, it was just dry and almost pasty. At this point of the eating experience, you realise the sauce did the heavy lifting to not alert you to the duck’s uneven and overcooked texture.
Sauce: Not much to talk about in taste and in volume. The top of the wrap was saturated in the sauce then it gradually got dryer as you continued to eat the wrap, which was the opposite of what I experienced with some of the other wraps but isn’t necessarily better. It’s just a difference between extremely wet leftovers and extremely dry leftovers.
Vegetables: Cucumber chopped into small triangular cubes (i don’t know how else to describe it). Feeble amount of unspecified lettuce. Despite that, there is a really solid crunch and bite from the cucumber and because there are multiple pieces, each bite is more evenly distributed with soft duck, sauce and crunchy vegetables. The unspecified lettuce gives off a subtle pepperiness that leans more earthy than bitter (something that you might find in a more potent rocket). This taste is unexpected in a hoisin duck wrap (based on research), but isn’t unwelcome. If you’re not into a watery and flavourless salad like a gem or iceberg lettuce, this is a good alternative - even if it doesn’t provide that refreshing contrast you may initially hope for. The cucumber helps balance the fresh crunch that is not as prominent in the lettuce. I see nor taste any spring onion. If it wasn’t for the copy or ingredients list, I would not have noticed if there was spring onion because it is not strong enough for me to tell.
I was whelmed. Not overwhelmed, not underwhelmed. Just simply…whelmed. This whelming sense of whelmness very much correlates to the experience of tasting and comparing multiple varieties of hoisin duck wraps that British supermarkets offer to the general public. The most visual appeal and texture variety came from M&S, the most expensive option, but the use of E-numbers deter me from purchasing it regularly as I am allergic to artificial colourings, flavourings, and preservatives (eating and reviewing wraps for the people, but at what cost!).
Furthermore, the differences in taste and texture are so minute that you are only going to pick up on the ‘nuances’ in this type of review setting—not when you are sitting on a bench trying to decompress from the turmoils of daily living with a snack, drink, and sandwich from the closest shop.
I very much enjoy hoisin duck over the numerous chicken varieties, but I can tell that options provided by supermarkets will never be able to match the powerhouse flavours and textures you would find if you actually bought Peking duck instead of these wraps. All of them did the job as a filling sandwich for a meal deal, but leave you wanting more from it, especially if you know what duck and hoisin could be at their peak culinary potential. Will I still have them at my convenience? Absolutely, as established I enjoy eating. Aside from that, you are not going to get the peak of Chinese cuisine in Britain from wrappers loosely cuddling lunch ingredients.
In terms of recommending which one to pick: I would say choose the Tesco option IF you want the best meal deal discounts and options BUT choose the cheapest wrap accessible to you if you only want to buy the wrap without the drink or snack. To be quite frank, no-wrap particularly stood out. The best way to pick an individual wrap based on my reviews is 1) figuring out what you don’t want then narrowing it down by process of elimination, and 2) cost and convenience. I’m sorry if you were looking for a more conclusive answer about the best hoisin duck wrap Britain has to offer but what I’ve learnt from reviewing these wraps is that it doesn’t matter because the bar is set low with all of them.
I wasn't expecting anything extraordinary or close to authentic Chinese cuisine, but after eating so many I now realize how one-note each component is once I took the time to analyse and critique what I was eating. But this brings up another question: Should we expect supermarkets to handle non-British food combinations gracefully and elegantly, or should we be more critical about the way non-British flavours are handled in British supermarkets in general—especially when a spectrum of Asian dishes and businesses are not visible necessarily on shelves? I’m not quite sure yet if the solution should be better quality flavours or better sourcing of non-supermarket brands, or if both can be achieved at all!
What can we learn from this?
Arguably a greater takeaway (no pun intended) from this is that the British public is not going to be able to rely on corporate supermarkets for a thorough, diverse and high standard of Asian food options. If anything, the unsung heroes of Asian corner shops and supermarkets are going to supply that gap in the market.
In 2020, Sana Noor Haq writes for gal-dem that,
“Over the lockdown period corner shops and independent grocers have reported a 63% upsurge in trade. The three months leading to 17 May saw sales made by independently-owned retailers increase by more than two times that of the fastest-growing supermarket chain Co-op, according to the data, insights and consulting company Kantar. [...] Withstanding waves of socio-political change such as Powellism, Brexit and Covid-19, corner shops continue to act as sites of congregation for Britain’s migrant communities.” (Haq).
Although this specifically discusses and reports on the South-Asian experience, it highlights how smaller businesses run by Asians largely for Asians can be impacted both negatively and positively by (more than one) economic crisis in modern Britain. However, there’s another problem with concluding you should replace your grocery shopping with Asian stores—regional locations.
According to data from a census published on the UK Government website, London had the smallest (proportionally) White British demographic with 44% and the largest Asian demographic with 18.5%. If you were to broaden that to the general South-East population, it was 85.2% White British and 5.2% Asian meanwhile the South-West population was 91.8% White British and 2.0% Asian, the second largest White British population behind Wales with 93.2%. The South West demographically is the antithesis of the South East (specifically London) population (Gov.uk Ethnicity facts and figures).
I bring this up because another clash arrives when it comes to where in Britain you can source your Asian food options. If the density and diversity of the food market can be signified in regional demographics - this suggests that anyone living or from the Westcountry would have had an astonishingly low chance of a multicultural food experience that wasn’t sanitised of its flavour or depth. We have a clash between supporting Asian stores and businesses because British supermarkets are lacking, and the inaccessibility of multiple Asian stores and businesses depending on your location.
An unfortunate reality is that because British supermarkets are almost everywhere, they are going to be the most accessible way for people to experience food diversity. Circling back to the whelmingness of the meal deal hoisin duck wrap, you can imagine how bleak I must feel about this reality.
This seems like a strange way to conclude a review about sandwiches. It is easy for me to say British supermarkets should do better with their Asian food options and reflect the same standard and diversity of Asian food stores, but the nuances of living and eating in Britain don’t exclusively revolve around a poor interpretation of a Chinese duck dish… Unfortunately.
What could happen if British supermarkets more drastically increased their supply of Asian food options? On one hand, these options may become more accessible regionally, nationally, and financially since Britain is under the brute fist of the higher cost of living. On another hand, could that economically impact the demand for smaller Asian businesses if the community is not enough to appeal? Modern British cuisine is built upon a history with non-British communities, but that history continues to build as we live. I hope the history we are writing about Britain’s modern food market improves upon shredded duck, hoisin sauce, mild vegetables and flour wrappers conveniently wrapped and packaged in two halves. And I tried them so you didn’t have to.
Editors: Rachel C., Cathay L., Leila W.
Image Credits: Tesco via The Grocer
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