Canadian Chinese cuisine or Can/Chinese 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 available in Canada. This cooking style was invented by early Cantonese immigrants who adapted traditional Chinese recipes to Western tastes. 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.
Construction of a Chinese camp, Kamloops B.C.Chinese workers were employed in the 1800s by Chinese labour contractors during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway linking Montréal 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. Even today 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 and is the only restaurant in town.
In British Columbia, a form of buffet known as the Chinese smorgasbord 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 smorgasbord.
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. Today Chinese Canadian citizens are the largest visible minority group in Canada, and Chinatowns are in every major Canadian city, with those in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montréal 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.
"Classic" versus "authentic"
Although traditionally a favourite comfort food among Canadians, Canadian-Chinese cuisine has in recent years experienced something of a backlash. This has been partly due to the perception that it is unhealthy, owing to its preference for deep frying and oils, saturated fats, and MSG.
Also, detractors hold that Canadian-Chinese cuisine is not "real" Chinese food, and ought to be avoided in favour of more traditional or authentic Chinese cuisines.
Canadian Chinese restaurants are usually small "mom & pop" businesses. Consequently the menus are highly variable, although the following dishes are generally universal:
- Cantonese Style Chow Mein —Fried egg noodles, green peppers, pea pods, bok choy, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, shrimp, Chinese pork (Char siu), chicken, & beef served in a thick sauce; Typically marquee dish in a Canadian Chinese meal (Not to be confused with American Style Chow Mein).
- Chicken Soo Guy — Sliced breaded chicken breast with almonds. 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
- Hot and Sour Soup
- Jar Doo Chicken Wings — Lightly breaded seasoned deep-fried chicken wings.
- Lo Mein —Fried Egg Noodles and vegetables, sometimes served in a thick sauce.
- Moo Goo Guy Pan — Sliced chicken with mushrooms and mixed vegetables.
- Singapore Noodles — Rice Noodles, beef & vegetables served in a curry sauce.
- Dry ribs — Deep-fried seasoned pork ribs.
- Sweet and Sour Pork — Deep-fried breaded pork balls in sauce. May have a slice of orange.
- Sweet and Sour Chicken Balls — Deep-fried breaded chicken in sweet and sour sauce.
- Ginger beef —Tender beef cut in chunks, mixed with ginger and Chinese mixed vegetables.
- Dai Dop Voy — Fried sliced young chicken meat, fresh shrimps, barbequed 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
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.
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 larger cities like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, Canadian Chinese restaurants can be clustered in the thriving Chinatowns. However, they are now most likely 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. Restaurants in the newer Chinatowns, particularly in Toronto and Vancouver, tend to cater to newer immigrants and offer more varied fare; Szechuan, Hakka, Chiuchow, Taiwanese, and even Buddhist cuisine restaurants can be found there. Because of the popularity of Canadian Chinese food, even some of the older authentic Chinese restaurants may offer Canadian Chinese dishes.