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 usually required altering cooking times, ingredients, and preparation methods so that the dishes were more agreeable to the Canadian palate. 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).
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 Vancouver, Toronto, and 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.
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 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.
Chinese restaurants are usually small "mom & pop" businesses. Consequently the menus are highly variable, although dishes tend to include thickly battered and deep fried pieces of meat and fish, preferred by Canadian palates. The following dishes are generally universal:
- General Tao's chicken — 左宗棠雞 Deep fried boneless dark-meat chicken pieces, served with vegetables and whole dried red peppers in a sweet-spicy sauce.
- Cantonese style chow mein — 廣東炒麵 Fried egg noodles, green peppers, pea pods, bok choy, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, shrimp, Chinese pork (char siu, 叉燒), chicken, and beef served in a thick sauce; typically marquee dish in a Canadian Chinese meal (not to be confused with American style chow mein).
- Almond Chicken Soo Guy (so gai) — Sliced breaded chicken breast with almonds and gravy. Usually known to anglophones as "almond chicken".
- Chop suey — Very similar to American style chop suey.
- Chow mein — Very similar to American style chow mein, but with more beansprouts. "Hong Kong style chow mein" omits the beansprouts and is served on a bed of crunchy fried noodles.
- Won ton soup and wor won ton - pork and shrimp dumplings in a chicken broth, sometimes with sliced meats like barbecued pork.
- Hot and sour soup
- Jar doo chicken wings — Lightly breaded seasoned deep-fried chicken wings.
- Lo mein — 撈麵 Fried egg noodles and vegetables, sometimes served in a thick sauce.
- Shanghai noodles — Fried thick noodles
- Moo goo guy pan — Sliced chicken with mushrooms and mixed vegetables.
- Shrimp with snow peas — In a clear sauce, often with other vegetables, often with battered and deep-fried shrimp.
- Singapore noodles — Rice noodles, beef, and vegetables served in a curry sauce.
- Dry ribs — Deep-fried seasoned pork ribs.
- Sweet and sour pork — Deep-fried pork chunks in sauce, often breaded into balls (but not always). May have a slice of orange.
- Sweet and sour chicken balls — Deep-fried breaded chicken or ground-chicken meatballs in sweet and sour sauce. In some Atlantic Canadian restaurants, the menus list this item only as "sweet and sour chicken," thus removing any reference to either the shape or the breaded coating.
- Pineapple chicken — A variation of chicken balls, sometimes similar to General Tso's chicken in term of appearance and texture. Coated with bright-red sweet tasting cherry sauce, and mixed with small chunks of pineapple.
- Ginger beef — 生姜牛肉 Tender beef cut in chunks, mixed with ginger and Chinese mixed vegetables.
- Ginger Fried Beef — 乾炒牛肉絲 Tender beef cut in strings, battered, deep dried, then re-fried in wok mixed with a sweet sauce, a variation of a popular Northern Chinese dish.
- Dai dop voy — 大什會 Fried sliced young chicken meat, fresh shrimps, barbecued pork with mixed Chinese vegetables.
- Diced pork ding — Cubed Chinese pork, almonds, and vegetables in a thick sauce (Any meat can serve as the base for a ding).
- Kung Pao chicken
- Egg foo yung
- Egg rolls
- Potstickers/Fried Pork Dumplings — Generally filled with diced pork and vegetables (mostly cabbage, green onion/scallion) in a doughy wrapper served pan-fried with a vinegar (can be white, red, black, rice wine vinegar...), sesame oil and ginger sauce. Often called "wor tips" in southern Alberta, especially at Chinese restaurants in Lethbridge. Also called Chinese perogies.
- Lemon chicken — Chicken breast, battered and deep-fried, then sliced and served with lemon sauce.
- Fried rice
- Salt and pepper squid