Sunday, 20 February 2011

Crispy Aromatic Duck 香酥鴨

Amongst the most popular Chinese dishes in Britain is crispy aromatic duck but like General Tso's chicken in the USA and dim sims in Australia, it isn't a dish that would be easily recognisable in China. So how did the crispy aromatic duck that the British know and love come into being?

The crispy aromatic duck served in Britain has its roots in a dish from Sichuan that shares the same Chinese name, xiang su ya 香酥鴨. Both dishes are prepared in the same way with the duck marinated with herbs and spices, before being steamed until tender, cooled, and finally deep-fried until crispy. Mind you, many Chinese restaurants in Britain take the shortcut of using pre-prepared ducks that merely need to be defrosted and deep-fried before serving.

Whilst the preparation is similar, the presentation of these two types of crispy aromatic duck is very different. The original version isn't served with pancakes, cucumber, spring onion and hoisin sauce, and nor is it shredded at the table by a waiter or a waitress. Instead the duck is chopped into pieces and is served on its own or sometimes with steamed buns.

I did some more research but I didn't get very far in that I couldn't find a restaurant or a chef who claims to have 'invented' this dish. The only information that I could find is that crispy aromatic duck was first served in London's Chinatown sometime in the last century, which isn't really that much of a revelation. My own theory is that some canny restaurateur wanted to serve a Peking duck style dish served with pancakes et al, that didn't need as much preparation as Peking duck itself.

My feelings about crispy aromatic duck are quite ambivalent. It isn't as bad as some of the dishes that pander to western tastes, but at the same time, I think it can tend to be a bit dry. I prefer Cantonese-style roast duck (燒鴨) and Peking duck (北京烤鴨) as they're both juicier, although it's hard to track down decent renditions of the latter in London.

But for all that, I sometimes eat crispy aromatic duck, usually in the company of friends who adore it. The most recent occasion was at the award-winning Empress of Sichuan, where it worked surprisingly well as a gentle starter before a typically spicy onslaught. And it was during this meal that I began to consider how in many ways, crispy aromatic duck symbolises British Born Chinese such as myself. I mean it's undoubtedly Chinese, but it's undergone a few changes, some good, some bad, to get along in the place it calls home.


  1. Ah, didn't know that the crispy aromatic duck has British roots. When made well, it is still delicious. Will have to try Empress of Sichuan's version. Wouldn't it be great to know the exact restaurant where this dish was born though

  2. Very interesting - I to had no idea of crispy duck's British birth. I have to confess to a love of the stretchy pancakes, shreds of salty-sweet duck and the hoi sin. It conjures up the Chinese meals of my Cornish youth and all the magic tastes and textures they introduced me to.

    But i don;t think i have ever tasted any of the Cantonese or Sichuan originals - one to try out soon methinks.

  3. I just clicked through your dim sims link and was fascinated. I'd never seen or heard of those. You have to do a separate post on that phenom. : )

  4. Kay - It is a shame that there isn't more of a story behind the birthplace of crispy aromatic duck. I guess whoever invented it, didn't want to draw attention to the fact that it wasn't strictly authentic. E of S's version is OK but I wouldn't go out of my way to order it.

    Gworm - you've got to check out the other ducks! The Cantonese roast duck is everywhere in Chinatown; they're the ones that you see hanging in the windows. I'm not sure if the Sichuan original is available in London, as xiang su ya 香酥鴨 is taken to mean the British crispy aromatic duck.

    A-in-L - I think I'll leave it to my London-based Aussie peers to post about dim sims. Suffice to say, the first time I saw them in Australia, I thought they were a spelling mistake. I then had a WTF moment when I saw what they looked like! That said, they're good in bad way - if you know what I mean.

  5. I'm a fan of crispy duck and its accoutrements! Before I ate meat, I used to just have the pancakes with spring onions and hoisin sauce... (I didn't like cucumber back then either)

  6. Now you have made me home sick for dim sim - I don't think you can get them in London though?

  7. kake - it's definitely the accoutrements that make this dish!

    GChick - I've never seen dim sim in Blighty. I think the closest thing in spirit to it in Britain is the Chinese take-away classic, pancake roll. Think of a super-sized spring roll that will inevitably burn your mouth on first bite.

    BTW, you must do a feature on dim sim when you're next in Oz.

  8. Hello
    This might be a random question but would you know whether there are any Chinese restaurants in London that don't use MSG? I've lived here for over 10 years and have been scared off because I can't take much MSG.

    Thanks for any advice!
    Canadian-Cantonese who misses good food!

  9. Anon - I wouldn't know but I would go somewhere a bit posher like Pearl Liang, Royal China or Phoenix Palace. And if I was in your shoes, I'd ask them outright whether they use MSG.

    That said, there is a problem in that they may use MSG inadvertently as many sauces may have contain it.