Canadian Chinese cuisine: How newcomers invented a new style of cooking
By: Callum Denault
Published on: January 5th, 2024
China is a huge, beautiful country with thousands of years of rich history. With so many of its people settling in countries around the world, bringing with them various recipes from different regions of China, it is no surprise that “Chinese cuisine” has become a global sensation.
That being said, a lot of Chinese food you’ll find in Canada is, in fact, uniquely Canadian, and nowhere to be found in the country it is said to originate from. One example is orange chicken: a spicy, tangy dish in Hunan, China is a much sweeter meal in North America, where orange chicken was reinvented by Panda Express executive chef, Andy Khao, who was inspired by Hawaiian cuisine and traditional American fried chicken.
American-Chinese or Canadian-Chinese dishes, such as orange chicken, are somewhat controversial, which may in part be due to how they historically have been sold as authentic Chinese cuisine, despite being more of an Asian/Western fusion. Many Chinese newcomers avoid this fusion cuisine in favour of dishes which are closer to what they experienced at home, with some going as far as to criticize Canadian-Chinese cuisine as an appropriation of their culture. Other Chinese newcomers, however, rely on selling Canadian-Chinese food to support themselves, and were the innovators who changed East Asian recipes to please a Western palette.
Origins of Canadian Chinese cuisine: A refuge from racism
What’s known as Chinese Canadian cuisine can be traced back to mid-late 19th century and early 20th century. Despite Chinese migrants contributing a lot to the settlement of Canada—with many of them losing their lives building the railways which bind this large nation together—Asian settlers were met with racism and neglect by their white compatriots. Many Chinese settlers were unable to find work, forcing them to create their own businesses to make money.
Early Chinese-run cafes either did not have any Chinese items on their menus, or they had a secret, oral menu that generally only other Chinese people knew about. These cafes often acted as community centres for Chinese Canadians, many of whom arrived in Canada alone due to racist immigration laws preventing people from bringing family with them. Eventually business owners started mixing in Chinese cooking techniques into their dishes, creating popular dishes such as chop suey, egg foo yung, and General Tso’s chicken. These foods were popular with
Non-Chinese Canadians due to their cheap prices and “exotic” nature.
Kwong Cheung—owner of the Silver Inn restaurant in Calgary—told Global News how his family invented the Albertan dish called ginger beef. Cheung said his older brother was a trained chef, and upon arriving in Canada, the two of them noticed how much Canadians enjoy eating French fries. They combined this with Albertans’ preference for beef to create their signature ginger beef dish. The goal was to make beef taste like French fries, with ginger beef being crunchy like a good side of fries, as well as being coated in a sweet and tangy sauce similar to ketchup.
Other “Chinese” dishes you’ll only find in Canada and the USA
Along with ginger beef, there are other Canadian Chinese dishes unique to certain parts of Canada.
Newfoundland chow mein is separate from the chow mein dishes you’ll find in other parts of North America, since the maritime dish is mostly cabbage.
Fried Macaroni is a Quebec dish made by stir frying meat, veggies, and macaroni pasta in soy sauce
Thunder Bay is known for its bon bons, which are deep fried ribs that are a popular bar snack
Fortune cookies are also a North American-inspired take on Chinese cuisine, which in fact do not come from China at all. If anything, the uniquely shaped treats—which are given to customers at the end of their meals in North American Chinese restaurants, and contain small slips of paper with an optimistic “fortune” written on them—come from Japanese culture. Going back to 19th century Kyoto is a sesame-miso cracker called tsujiura senbei, which also contained small paper fortunes. These crackers are thought to have been converted into the sweet, vanilla-flavoured cookies in California, although the exact inventor of fortune cookies is unknown.
The arrival of authentic Chinese cuisine to Canada: Must it replace Canadian Chinese food?
According to The Canadian Encyclopedia, the 1980s-1990 is when big cities such as Toronto and Vancouver received large amounts of Chinese immigrants, many of whom were wealthy, educated, and wanted foods that truly reminded them of home. Chinatowns erupted with restaurants selling dim sum, wonton, and Cantonese-style barbecue. In time, these authentic Chinese dishes became just as much a mainstay in Canada as the locally invented foods such as orange chicken and ginger beef.
Despite its rich history, Canadian Chinese food has been derided by food critics who see it as little more than a fake knockoff of the real deal, as covered in this CBC article. However, the writer of that article, Kathrynn Mannie, disagrees with this idea, believing her family survived in Canada in part because their skill of creating Chinese-Canadian fusion dishes helped them overcome the severe prejudice immigrants were faced with.
As she wrote for CBC, “Western-Chinese cuisine emerged in an environment of anti-Chinese racism, segregation and federal exclusion. The cuisine served as an ambassador between the two cultures — because despite not wanting us in Canada, our food was just that good.”