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.