Canadian Chinese cuisine
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Canadian Chinese cuisine is a popular style of cooking exclusive to take-out and dine-in eateries found across Canada. It was the first form of commercially available Chinese food in Canada. This cooking style was invented by early Cantonese immigrants who adapted traditional Chinese recipes to Western tastes and the available ingredients. This cuisine developed alongside a similar version in the United States.
Chinese workers were employed in the 1800s by Chinese labour contractors during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway linking Montreal with Vancouver. Many of those workers who stayed once the railway was completed resorted to opening small inexpensive restaurants or working as cooks in mining and logging camps, canneries, and in the houses of the upper classes in cities and towns. They prepared variations on traditional Cantonese food that were well received by local patrons and they were prized as cooks in wealthier households. This occurred despite the fact that few if any of them were trained chefs.
In most small towns in Western Canada, the Chinese “café” was the first restaurant established, and often the only one. People did not buy the food of their own ethnic group since they could prepare those themselves, whereas Chinese food was a novelty. Furthermore, the Chinese community was not heavily involved in agriculture, so this presented an opportunity for an alternative source of income. Consequently the Chinese community specialized in the restaurant business, and were able to undercut and out-compete later rivals. These Chinese restaurants became an icon of Prairie towns and served as a foothold for a new Canadian community, and this history is displayed in a new exhibit called "Chop Suey on the Prairies" at the Royal Alberta Museum.
In British Columbia, a form of buffet known as the Chinese smörgåsbord developed in pre-railway Gastown (the settlement that became Vancouver) when Scandinavian loggers and millworkers encouraged their Chinese cooks to turn a sideboard into a steamtable instead of bringing plates of single dishes to the dining table. Following the introduction of the automobile and the invention of the drive-in restaurant (by another Vancouver restaurateur: see White Spot), Chinese take-out service was augmented by Chinese drive-ins, including the now-vanished Dragon Inn chain, which was also known for its smörgåsbord.
In Vancouver and Victoria, the more authentic Chinese restaurants were largely found in those cities' Chinatowns, but Chinese food became a staple of city as well as small-town life and became a normal part of the local culture. Many British Columbians for example, grew up using chopsticks as well as knives and forks. Certain Chinese-Canadian recipes became current in non-Chinese households by the mid-20th Century (e.g. chow mein, sweet and sour pork, chop suey, egg foo yung).
Bill Wong was a serial restaurateur in Montreal who reportedly opened the city's first Chinese buffet restaurant, "House of Wong" on Queen Mary Road in the heavily-Jewish Snowdon district in the 1950s. He later opened the now-closed iconic restaurant "Bill Wong's" on nearby Decarie Boulevard in 1962.
Further Cantonese immigration to Canada began anew in the 1960s, and was ignited in the 1980s in anticipation of China's administrative take-over of Hong Kong. This resulted in many Hong Kong families relocating to Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and above-all Canada. This preference for Canada was due to its immigration policy, a high-standard of living, established Chinese community, and its membership in the Commonwealth (whereas the United States tended to accept more mainland or Taiwanese Chinese while imposing immigration quotas on Commonwealth countries such as Hong Kong). Today Chinese Canadian citizens are the largest visible minority group in Canada, and Chinatowns are in every major Canadian city, with those in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, and Calgary being the largest.
This new wave of Chinese immigration has also brought a demand for more authentic Chinese food. The newer Chinese restaurants, particularly in areas of high Asian immigration, tend to serve authentic Chinese cuisine that evolved in Chinese communities outside of Canada, which cater to immigrants. These range from Cantonese Dim Sum restaurants to Hakka cuisine restaurants with an Indian flair.
Canadian Chinese restaurants
Even very small towns in most of Canada have at least one Canadian Chinese restaurant, and many can have two or more proprietors seeking out business, often right next to each other on the main street. Many towns that cannot support a single franchise restaurant still have a thriving Chinese food restaurant. However, many independent restaurants in larger cities have found their business shrinking as delivery chains and buffets squeeze out traditional sit-down restaurants. In many towns and hamlets across the prairie provinces and in northern British Columbia, there can usually be found a Chinese café regardless of the community's size, serving "Canadian and Chinese cuisine" or, once more common, "Chinese and Western Food". In Glendon, Alberta, for example, next to a roadside model of the world's largest perogy (a staple of Ukrainian cuisine), sits the Perogy Café, which serves "Ukrainian and Chinese Perogies" (meaning Pot Stickers). This establishment is actually owned by a Vietnamese family.
Canadian Chinese chop suey houses are predominately situated in non-immigrant neighbourhoods catering to non-Chinese customers. However, they are now most often mixed with those featuring the more traditional cuisines. Canadian Chinese restaurants are not limited to these areas and can often be found even at the farthest outskirts of the metropolitan areas. Because of the popularity of Canadian Chinese food, even some of the older authentic Chinese restaurants may offer Canadian Chinese dishes to cater to non-Chinese customers.
Restaurants in the newer Chinatowns, particularly in Vancouver and Toronto, tend to cater to recent Asian immigrants and offer more varied fare; Szechuan, Hakka, Chiuchow, Taiwanese, and even Buddhist cuisine restaurants can be found there.
Perhaps the largest concentration of Chinese restaurants in North America is located in the Golden Village area in Richmond, BC, a suburb of Vancouver, BC. It has been speculated that the restaurants here serve the best Chinese food outside of China, with some saying the best in the world due to the freshness of the seafood from BC's coast.
The old Toronto downtown Chinatown has seen most of the once-famed restaurants on Dundas Street close since the late 1990s, especially the barbecue shops located below grade. In the newer suburban areas, such as Highway 7 in Richmond Hill and Markham, the Chinese restaurants range from small eateries, BBQ shops, and bakeries in Chinese strip malls and food courts, to the larger and more expensive places that often function as banquet halls. Out of these upscale restaurants, the older places will often have the traditional Chinese decor, which is red and yellow colours with the Fenghuang (Chinese dragon and phoenix) adorning the wall behind the dais, however newer establishments tend to be decorated in a more Western contemporary style. Many of these fine dining restaurants and banquet halls often offer discounted Dim Sum lunches on weekdays and early weekends and/or to seniors, though this is a low margin segment, and their main earnings come from hosting weddings or other functions.
Although most restaurants are independent businesses, there are some chains such as Hons Wonton House (Metro Vancouver), Kirin Chinese Restaurant (Metro Vancouver), Congee Wong (Toronto and York Region) and Mandarin Restaurant (Southern Ontario).
Josephine Smart, a professor from the University of Calgary, has written on the evolution of Canadian Chinese cuisine. Her papers have examined the dynamics of localization and "authenticization" of Chinese food in Canada, and its implications for ethnic relations and the culture of consumption.
Chinese restaurants generally use either one of the romanization systems for Cantonese or an ad hoc romanization rather than the Pinyin romanization of Mandarin Chinese with which non-Chinese people are now most familiar. This has the effect, intended or not, of lending a sense of exotic nostalgia to the dining experience.
Most commonly used for take-out are foam take-out containers, while some such as Congee Wong offers special plastic containers; aluminum pan pie dishes were previously popular until the late 1990s when they fell out of favor due to high costs and environmental concerns. Canadian Chinese restaurants do not make use of the oyster pail like their American counterparts.
For more expensive and/or formal occasions, Canadian Chinese food tends to be more authentic. A Chinese wedding reception typically has nine or ten courses. Expensive dishes such as shark fin, abalone, lobster, jumbo shrimp, squab, sea bass, or sea cucumber are common on a wedding banquet menu. A whole fish, chicken, or pig means luck and completeness in Chinese wedding culture.
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