The unique culinary delight that is Chinese-Canadian food

Assortment of Chinese-Canadian items: sweet & sour chicken, chow mein, fried rice, egg roll. (Tori Floyd)

This story is part of a week-long series exploring how we as Canadians define "Canadian food," and how it has evolved in modern Canada.

How many times have you heard that the Chinese food you’re eating isn’t “real” Chinese food?

If what’s on your plate or in your take-out container is lemon chicken, ginger beef, chicken balls or anything else coated in neon red sauce, then it probably isn’t Chinese food.

What you’ve got is Chinese-Canadian food, which pretty much makes it Canadian – a distinct style of cooking with a rich history as old as the nation it was created in.

“Everybody who has eaten in one of these restaurants knows there is something very specific about the food on that menu,” says Lily Cho, an associate professor of English at Toronto’s York University and author of “Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small Town Canada,” a study of Chinese diasporic culture.

Cho should know. Besides making Chinese-Canadian restaurants and their typically split menus (“Chinese” in one half, “Canadian” in the other) the focus of her doctoral dissertation, the Edmonton native spent her childhood around them. Her aunt and uncle owned one in Red Deer, Alta. and while she was still quite young, her dad took the family up to Whitehorse, Yukon where he tried his hand at running the local Chinese restaurant there, the Shangri-La, in the early 1970s for two years. A photo of the place, replete with the unmistakeable red, white and gold signage and stylized lettering, graces the cover of her book. Her favourite dish from its menu? The hot beef sandwich, which she believes has been perfected in the Chinese-Canadian restaurant.

A time before chicken balls

The Shangri-La owned by Cho's parents in Whitehorse, Yukon. (Courtesy Lily Cho)

For a long time, that was the sort of food most often found on Chinese-Canadian restaurant menus, before sweet and sour anything was even a brightly-hued thought in some cook’s mind. The earliest eateries were products of Chinese migrants and their families who had first come to Canada in the mid- to late-19th century, during successive gold rushes, to build the country’s unifying railroad, work in its mines and pick up other jobs that needed doing, including cooking, thanks to the resources boon.

The restaurants they started in British Columbia, moving out to Alberta and Saskatchewan and, in time, further east, were set up to cater to a rural crowd in towns that often did not have anywhere else to go for a meal out or even somewhere to meet with friends or neighbours over coffee. Vancouver artist Janice Wong, in her family and food memoir “Chow,” writes that at her parents’ popular Wings Café, opened in 1944 in Prince Albert, Sask., the offerings of the day were things like Finnan Haddie (a Scottish-style smoked haddock), breaded lake trout, raisin pie and custard pudding. There was no chow mein in sight.

Dishes like egg foo young, chop suey and stir fries started to creep onto menus in post-war Canada, an event Cho believes was not so coincidental with the end of the Chinese Exclusion Act (formally known as the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923), which restricted Chinese immigration to Canada, and the granting of the right for Chinese-Canadians to vote in federal elections, both in 1947. Even then, Chinese restaurateurs tread carefully, creating dishes that wouldn’t overwhelm the Canadian palate.

There was also the problem of finding the right ingredients. Rice was pretty much the only staple ingredient western Canadian Chinese cooks had access to, along with soy sauce they had to bring in via Vancouver. Their vegetable options were limited to what they could grow. Carrots and celery weren’t common in Chinese cooking but have showed up plenty on Chinese-Canadian plates.

“One of the reasons bean sprouts come up so often in Chinese-Canadian food is, it’s easy to grow. If you had a bucket and a water source, you could grow bean sprouts,” says K. Linda Tzang, who curated the Royal Alberta Museum’s successful exhibition, “Chop Suey on the Prairies,” which ran from 2013 to 2014.

Sauces were heavier too than they would be in mainland China. “That’s because westerners like gravy,” says Tzang. “That’s not part of Asian cuisine.”

Chinese people emigrated to the U.S. and brought their cooking there as well. But Tzang and others insist there is a distinctively Canadian brand of Chinese food that has its own regional variations. In Ottawa, patrons have to specify if they want Cantonese chow mein to get the full-on egg noodles with meat and vegetables, or just chow mein, which gets you a plate of stir-fried bean sprouts. Ordering deep fried wontons in Peterborough, Ont., brings a dish of the crispy wrappers, no filling. Edmonton has its famous green onion cake, a circular, deep-fried number made with flour and green onions that has its roots in northern China. Calgary, not to be outdone, is the locus of ginger beef, said to have been invented at the city’s Silver Inn, leading to a chain of restaurants with the dish’s name and a trend that has spread across the country.

The inventions and rejiggings continue. The owners of Toronto’s Boralia restaurant, dedicated to culinary Canadiana, pay homage to the country’s Chinese influences through their chop suey croquettes and devilled Chinese tea eggs. The croquettes, which include sticky rice, meat trimmings and Chinese seasonings, draw their history from the dish that Chinese workers put together using meat scraps, available vegetables, sautéed with leftover rice or noodles and brown sauce.

“What we do is take what they originally did and then see how we can present it in a different way so it becomes a different dish altogether,” says Evelyn Wu who runs Boralia with her chef husband Wayne Morris.

The true test: becoming comfort food

Here’s one thing Chinese-Canadian restaurants offer that may help explain their enduring appeal: comfort and predictability in a chaotic world. When you order sweet and sour chicken balls, regardless of the restaurant, you have a pretty good idea of what you’re going to get. The take-out plum sauce packets are a familiar touchstone. And who ever goes to a Chinese-Canadian restaurant without getting fortune cookies before they leave?

“Consistency always rules,” says Amanda Fong, whose family runs the much-loved Far East restaurant in Niagara Falls, Ont.

Once a truck stop, her grandfather Henry started Far East in 1972 along with her father Paul, gradually integrating Chinese-inspired items with what patrons of the former establishment had come to expect. Some of Far East’s elderly patrons, still “come in for our burger, because it’s what they remember,” says Amanda, a schoolteacher and the eldest of four siblings who all do their stints at the restaurant while pursuing careers elsewhere.

Although her father has introduced some newer items to the menu more recently, such as the “house specialty chicken,” with fried chicken blended in slightly spicy sweet Hoi Sen sauce, “all the ingredients are the same,” says Amanda. “If you came 42 years ago they would have been exactly the same. My dad still cooks back there to maintain that consistency. But it’s comfort food now. People want to go where they know they can expect the same kind of quality as the last time.”