How Chop Suey and Ginger Beef Helped Canada Discover Itself
Looking at Canadian Chinese food through the lens of photography, literature, and cooking.
Photo by Elyse Bouvier.
Last summer, Elyse Bouvier got into her beat-up Volvo station wagon and drove across Alberta in search of something very personal but very foreign.
It was not any kind of spiritual epiphany or Kerouacian pursuit of freedom. Instead, she ate and took dozens of photos of ginger beef at tiny Chinese restaurants across rural Alberta. Through the lens of her camera, she was trying to capture a cuisine that is ubiquitous and mysterious in Canada, and the trip culminated in an exhibition called Royal Cafe: Chinese-Western in Alberta.
But the journey of reconnecting with Canadian Chinese food is not unique to Bouvier. It's the same one embarked on by chef Evelyn Wu and professor Lily Cho, each of whom have used their professional lens to better understand the food brought to Canada by Chinese immigrants over a century ago—food that remains a staple of the Canadian diet.
But what does this have to do with ginger beef in Alberta?
Ginger beef is an iconic Canadian Chinese dish made of battered and deep-fried beef and coated in a thick, dark, sweet, vinegary sauce. It's the perfect springboard off of which to jump into the murky waters of Canadian Chinese food and its origins.
Ginger beef is indigenous to Alberta but can be found, it's safe to say, on pretty much any Chinese takeout menu in Canada. But like its American cousin General Tso's chicken, you'll have a hard time finding anything resembling ginger beef in China—it doesn't exist. It is neither Chinese nor Canadian, and yet it is both.
So how can one food occupy such a strange, culturally ambiguous place in Canada? Part of the reason is that Canada was, by all accounts, a very strange and culturally ambiguous place when Chinese immigrants arrived here during the second half of the 19th century. And like a lot dishes, from General Tso's chicken to poutine, a lot of restaurants claim the inventor's throne, but there is no definitive evidence to support these claims.
Does this really matter? "Not really," says Lily Cho.
Cho is a English professor at York University and the author of Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small Town Canada, where she set out to understand the impact that Chinese food has had on Canadian culture. It's a complicated topic and one steeped in a long history of institutionalized racism.
"There were a lot of things about Chinese immigration to Canada that were controversial because, frankly, we had a deeply discriminatory and racist legislative history for the first half of the 20th century,"says Cho. She is referring to the Chinese Immigration Act, also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act. "This is a community that was explicitly targeted in Canadian legislation, in ways that were very, very specific."
Cho is weary of any broad narrative explaining the origins of a cuisine that emerged during such a tumultuous and poorly documented time.
"I'm trained in postmodernism, so I find the desire for a master narrative pretty interesting and ideologically suspect." Because of her literary background, Cho warns of the dangers of bending the narrative to support a cleaner, clearer view of the past—especially one which is so deeply intertwined with the pain, humiliation, and persecution of immigrants."
For instance, while examining 100-year-old printed menus ("Print is all we've got," she emphasized), Cho uncovered some very unexpected results while researching Eating Chinese, such as a town of 50 people that was settled by Chinese railway workers who had travelled from California, presumably to help build another country.
"I have a menu from 1913 from a restaurant called the New Dayton Cafe in a town called New Dayton, which no longer exists, in Alberta," she recounts. "The menu has zero Chinese food on it—a bunch of spaghetti and short order stuff—but there is Mexican food on it, like chili con carne and tamales. Yet the restaurant is explicitly marked as Chinese. A lot of Chinese rail workers came up from California after having worked on the American railways and picked up a bunch of Hispanic cooking along the way. So one of the earliest manifestations of 'ethnic' food in Canada was actually Mexican."
For Cho, this unexpected overlap of Canadian, Chinese, and Mexican cuisines is a stark reminder that history is inherently messy and that we should indeed be weary of broad narratives.
Elyse Bouvier agrees. If her summer-long fixation on ginger beef taught her anything, it's that whatever clean narrative existed in her (and Canada's) imagination fails to capture the complexity of diaspora food.
"There's this idea that ginger beef was 'invented' in Calgary," she says. "It's not necessarily true or untrue—there are a bunch of different tales about how ginger beef was invented to create this perfect mean between Chinese and Western tastes. But it doesn't really matter if it's true or not."
Another dish with a dubious origin story is chop suey.
The hodgepodge of meat, vegetables, rice, and "brown sauce" supposedly dates back to the days of the railroads, when tens of thousands of Chinese workers came to Canada to risk life and limb(s) and connect the ends of our country with wood and steel (usually for one dollar per day). Railroad workers lived in camps and cooked for themselves, meaning that they had to improvise to make things delicious and need very hearty food to stave off exhaustion and scurvy.
Thus tsap seui (杂碎), Cantonese for "miscellaneous leftovers," was born, eventually morphing into "chop suey" and becoming wildly popular throughout rural and urban Canada—or, so the story goes.
"I think that any comic book reader will tell you that origin stories are just that—they're stories," says Cho. "It's merely a story. So, I can't verify it, but that's the common story; this dish made from scraps by rail workers. If you look at any of those early supply lists from these camps, you don't see anything Chinese on them. It's oil, sugar, and flour mostly. It makes sense that chop suey emerged out of the resourceful use of available scraps. I'm happy to go with this origin story, but I can't verify it."
And speaking of origin stories and clean narratives, most Canadians probably don't know that Canada was almost called Borealia. I didn't. Not until Evelyn Wu, chef and co-owner of Toronto's Boralia restaurant told me. "We could have all been Borealians!" says Wu.
It's a fitting name for a restaurant whose menu is an ode to the cuisines of Canada's indigenous peoples, its European settlers, and subsequent waves of immigration. It's completely void of irony and kitsch, but they do use ingredients, recipes, and cooking techniques of yesteryear to showcase all of the intersecting lines that make up Canadian cuisine.
Like Boralia's riff on chop suey, a croquette made of rice, Chinese sausage, and whatever meat trimmings might be laying around Knight's kitchen—today, it's elk—is finally injected with the fabled "brown sauce" that harkens back to the railway and Gold Rush camps of Western Canada.
Like Boralia's riff on chop suey, a croquette made of rice, Chinese sausage, and whatever meat trimmings might be laying around Knight's kitchen (today, it's elk), that's injected with the fabled "brown sauce" that harkens back to the railway and gold rush camps of Western Canada.
Aesthetically, it's closer to arancini than it is to any traditional Chinese food.
"It was all based on something from back home," Wu says referring to China. "Like, leftover rice and noodles, meat scraps, leftover vegetables, and just slathered in a thick brown sauce. From what we researched in the Gold Rush camps, that's what the Chinese workers would put in there. As these camps grew bigger, they evolved into the first chop suey houses or restaurants. It was an exciting, new foreign thing and that's how these Chinese restaurants sprouted."
For Wu, making a chop suey-based dish allows for her to pay tribute to the Chinese workers who helped build the country that her family later immigrated to. But what's cool about food is that it can communicate this feeling in a nonverbal way.
"I'm first-generation," she says. "My family can't take credit for the railroads. But I am very proud of that. The Chinese played such an important role and it is pretty undervalued, with the segregation that happened and immigration policies that stopped Chinese people from coming in. Reading that stuff makes me kind of angry, but I'm proud that that's kind of my heritage.
"Early on, a lot of customers didn't understand why there was Asian stuff on the menu, but Chinese people are everywhere in Canada and we did play a prominent role in building it!"
Despite never having eaten Wu's food at Boralia, Lily Cho was pleasantly surprised at how closely it synthesized her own academic research.
"That's a noble thing to do and I'm totally down with it," Cho says. "We have to own some of that sadness. Evelyn's menu actually embodies my argument that the old and the new generation of Chinese immigrants need to reconnect. It seems to me that there is a real desire for some immigrant groups to move away from their roots but it's very interesting that there is a generation of people trying to recuperate that history and make it part of the way we understand culture today in Canada. It seems that what Evelyn is doing something way more complex than haute comfort food."
But the story of Canadian Chinese food is not just one of immigrants catering to Western palates with rich, sweet, fried dishes like ginger beef and General Tso's chicken. According to the 1931 census, nearly 20 percent of Canadian cafes or taverns were run by someone of Chinese origin at a time when that community made up only 1 percent of the population.
As a result, the feedback loop between Chinese food and Canadian culture actually operated in two different directions. Because while Chinese immigrants were being socially, economically, and politically shit on, they were introducing Canadians not only to Chinese food, but to introduce Canadian to their own cuisine.
Despite, or perhaps because of, this widespread segregation, menus at the time were often broken down into "Canadian Food" and "Chinese Food" rows. This, Cho says, gave Canadians the first glimpse into what another group thought of as being "Canadian food."
"I was struck by the fact that these restaurants named Canadian food long before Canadians did. These were some of the first places where somebody printed out the words 'Canadian food' on a tangible object."
Elyse Bouvier also walked away from her ginger beef road trip with a deeper appreciation for the complexity of the Canadian Chinese food; a cuisine she thought she was familiar with, after decades of eating it.
"I was looking for a part of my own story, but as I went along I realized that it wasn't really about my journey. Now, my eyes are more open to the complexity of it and how there's been this long journey of Asian immigration to Canada.
"These immigrants were trying to survive and couldn't turn someone away from their restaurant because they were going to be racist or bigoted towards them. [Now], this is their space and it's familiar and hospitable and welcoming. It definitely taught me new perspectives about the complexity of what these places represent for Canadian identity."
In other words, photography, chop suey croquettes, and comic books may not paint the most factual picture of the past, but they can do something even more important.
"When we focus on Superman's or Batman's origin story, it tells us about our desire for origins," Cho concludes.
"And the stories we tell about our food tell us a lot about ourselves."