I tried Hoisin Duck wraps from (almost) every UK supermarket
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.
If some of you may remember or have read my love letters to noodles, where I cite from the British Library that:
"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.