The Authentically Inauthentic Origin of Canadian-Chinese Food

Here in Canada, a Chinese takeout menu would feel incomplete without staple dishes like Chop Suey, Sweet & Sour Chicken Balls, or Ginger Beef. But any of these dishes would be hard to come by in China. In honour of National Noodle Month, we’re exploring the origin story of these Chinese-inspired, but uniquely westernized fusion dishes that have worked their way into the hearts of Canadians. 

We’ve come a long way since the introduction of Chinese food to western culture. Access to ingredients, diversity of local palettes, and an appreciation for “authentic” Chinese cuisine has emerged in the local Chinatowns of cities and beyond. However, that doesn’t negate the authenticity of the fusion dishes that arose originally out of immigrants’ ingenuity and creativity. Food from their homeland was adapted for Canada’s terroir and new authentically Canadian-Chinese food was born. 

Many of the dishes we have come to take for granted as Canadians originate with mass Chinese immigration in the late 18th century in search of economic opportunity. At the time, Chinese immigrants faced racism, a steep language barrier, and discrimination in the workforce. Often segregated to poorer outskirts of the cities in which they lived, they opened restaurants in an effort to make a living – the budding beginnings of now historic Chinatowns. 

Ancestral knowledge around preparing authentic Chinese cuisine may have lived in their bones, but they could not access the ingredients necessary to recreate it, and local palettes were not prepared to accept such new flavour profiles. So the immigrant community got creative and adapted the dishes they knew and loved into a fusion cuisine their new customer base would appreciate. Over time, this is how now-iconic dishes like Chop Suey and Chicken Balls (with that classic sticky-sweet bright red Sweet & Sour sauce) were created. 

Menu adaptations were driven by culinary creativity and local preferences, which is why you’ll now find that certain dishes have risen to icon status in localized pockets across the country. In Thunder Bay, for example, you’d be remiss to omit Bon Bons from your Chinese takeout order. These crispy, deep-fried ribs are the perfect savoury companion to an ice-cold beer. The prairies have popularized Ginger-Beef – flank steak, battered, deep-fried and coated in a sticky & slightly spicy ginger sauce. Newfoundland historically lacked access to ethnic ingredients like egg noodles. Thinly sliced cabbage, resembling noodles, has replaced egg noodles in Newfie Chow Mein. 

Any cuisine, no matter how it comes to be, derives its own unique authenticity from its origin story – rooted in the real experiences of real people who contributed to inventing it. These menu staples have become the comfort foods of many – continuing to bring family, friends, and communities together across Canada.