Chop Suey on the Prairies: New museum exhibit on history of Alberta's Chinese restaurants
Published Thursday, April 18, 2013 4:12PM MDT
Last Updated Friday, April 19, 2013 11:06AM MDT
No matter where you are in Alberta, from a small town to a big city, chances are you’ll find a Chinese restaurant.
The history of Chinese restaurants in the province is vast and a new exhibit Chop Suey on the Prairies: A History of Chinese Restaurants in Alberta, looks at the reasons behind why and how the province's numerous Chinese restaurants came to be.
“What we’re trying to do is explain those recognizable things,” says Linda Tzang, curator of cultural communities at the Royal Alberta Museum.
“It’s explaining why the Chinese went into the restaurant business in the first place and there are actually quite deep reasons for it. It’s explaining how the restaurants actually functioned because if you think about it, the isolation, this one person being in a small town by himself, there are reasons for all of these things, what we’re trying to do is, these things didn’t happen by chance, there were reasons and motivations.”
It’s a topic many Albertans – not just Chinese Albertans – can relate to, from upscale banquet halls to tiny, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, authentic Chinese cuisine to spots offering familiar western dishes.
“We hear stories of baloney sandwiches, grilled cheese sandwiches, they made a great pot roast, they made a great meat loaf or roast beef, they weren’t serving Chinese food,” Tzang said.
“You couldn’t really make authentic Chinese food in Alberta until the 80s because half the ingredients weren’t being imported into the city because of global economics and similarly with other cuisines.”
Surprising Chinese food tidbits
The exhibit features areas devoted to the history of ginger beef and green onion cakes – two Chinese food items, each with a uniquely Albertan back story to tell.
Tzang says ginger beef is actually credited as being invented at the Silver Inn in Calgary.
The Silver Inn was one of the first restaurants in the province to try and introduce authentic northern Chinese cuisine.
The taste was originally not as well-received from customers as the chef would have liked, so he re-invented it.
“Instead of stir-frying the beef, he deep fried it and battered it. He modified the sauce a little bit to be less pungent and more chili-like and that got put on their menu and it became an instant hit,” Tzang said.
At the time the chef called it ‘Deep fried beef with chili sauce,’ but customers ended up asking for the ‘gingery-beef thing.’
“So that’s actually the origin of the name, from the customers naming it, not from the restaurants,” Tzang said.
Green onion cakes, while very much a northern Chinese dish, has found popularity in Edmonton that Tzang can’t quite wrap her head around.
“It’s a very definite Edmonton thing,” she said. “And we still don’t have an answer as to why Edmontonians love green onion cakes. I still can’t figure it out and we’ve asked people and they say well it tastes good but it doesn’t really answer why it never went to Calgary. We’ve challenged people to provide us an answer, why Edmonton and why green onion cakes.”
Chop Suey on the Prairies: A History of Chinese Restaurants in Alberta opens Saturday at the Royal Alberta Museum and runs until April 27, 2014.
It’s set-up using iPad technology that will allow the Royal Alberta Museum to update information throughout the year.
“It’s a living, growing entity. It’s a history. What we have right now is three years of accumulated research and so now we have the potential to draw it out to four years in total,” said Michael Seguin, head of exhibit design and production.
“What you see in an iPad we can update continuously so it’s a living archive in a way, so rather than being a flat-out poster it’s going to change constantly, we’re hoping.”