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An ode to ginger beef: the hidden history of Chinese Canadian cuisine

For many Calgarians, ginger beef is a staple of their beloved city. In fact, it is revered throughout Alberta.

The dish is a plate of breaded and fried strips of beef, often stir-fried with ginger, peppers, and onions. It’s then topped with a sticky, flavorful sauce and served over a bed of plain or fried rice.

A plate of ginger beef.


Jonathan Wong/South China Morning Post via Getty Images


It has become a staple in Chinese restaurants and food courts across Canada. Check out a Chinese food stand in a Canadian mall and you’ll likely see ginger beef in a serving tray.

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But the humble court also stands for a collective struggle for survival on foreign soil.

The Silver Inn Restaurant, a family-owned Chinese restaurant in Calgary, reportedly invented ginger beef to introduce new Chinese foods to Western palates.

Silver Inn Restaurant owner Kwong Cheung standing outside on Tuesday 11th October 2022.


Global News


It was first opened in 1975 by two Hong Kong sisters, Louise Tang and Lily Wong, who were remodeling an old coffee shop just outside of Calgary’s Chinatown.

According to its website, Silver Inn’s original menu included some Beijing-style Western and Chinese dishes to cater to mostly non-Chinese guests unaccustomed to authentic fare.

After 47 years in business, the restaurant finally closed its doors on Sunday. The shop was so iconic that its sign was stolen the day after (it has since been returned to the owner).

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“Like every dish, it was made by mistake,” said owner Kwong Cheung.

“My oldest brother was a trained chef, and when we decided to open the restaurant, he realized that Canadians like french fries. In Alberta, of course, people liked to eat beef.”

“We were trying to figure out a way to mix the two together… We found that we could get the beef as crispy as french fries and then pair it with a sweet and sour sauce like ketchup.

“We wanted to adapt to the local palate.”


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The sign stolen from the famous Calgary restaurant has been returned


Cheung said his family didn’t realize how popular ginger beef was becoming until years later because they were struggling to make the business successful.

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“When we first opened the restaurant in 1975, we were the first to serve food (Beijing style). We thought about how we would get through the first six months. We never thought of leaving a legacy or anything like that,” the restaurant owner said.

“When it all started, we were so busy that we never thought of anything else but to keep the customers happy… We should have done that – we could have retired even sooner!”

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Ginger beef is one of many dishes that emerged as a result of Chinese-Canadian immigration. Chop suey and mu shu pork are two examples of dishes created by Chinese immigrants.

But these dishes often have a painful history. In the 1850s, many Chinese workers arriving in Canada faced language barriers, forcing them either to work on the Canadian Pacific Railway for poverty wages or to open shops.

These Chinese restaurant owners often had to adapt dishes or entire menus to suit the mostly western palate and build a successful business.

“In the 19th century, they were often the only Chinese in these cities. Their customers are typically of European descent and ate at these restaurants because they came to Canada without their families,” said Josephine Smart, anthropology professor at the University of Calgary.

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“If you look up old menus you will see that Chinese run cafes sometimes did not contain a single Chinese item and if they did the choice would be very limited.”

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These restaurants also served as community centers for Chinese immigrants, who often came to North America without their families due to the racist immigration policies of the time.

“They would also serve Chinese immigrants working in the same place, but they would order from very different menus. Sometimes that’s just a verbal menu: What does the owner have available today,” Smart said.

Smart said old restaurants like the Silver Inn and the Golden Inn are woven into Canadian culture because they’ve been around for so long.

Golden Inn was a restaurant known for its salt and pepper squid located in Calgary’s Chinatown. The restaurant closed its doors in August after 45 years in business.

“You have Chinese who grew up in Canada and the non-Chinese Canadians who eat this type of food and are exposed to Chinese Canadian culture. It’s part of the Canadian culture.

“Overall, Chinese immigrants play an important role when you look at Canada’s history. They are best known for working on the Canadian Pacific Railway and being domestics for wealthy farmers and ranchers… The Chinese have made an innovative contribution economically and historically.”

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The Evolution of Modern Sino-Canadian Cuisine

Smart didn’t agree with the idea that the closure of old Chinese restaurants spelled the downfall of Chinatown. Rather, it’s an opportunity to introduce new Chinese cultural elements to cities like Calgary and Vancouver.

“A lot of these restaurant owners don’t want their kids to work in very demanding industries. They worked really hard to get the income and upward mobility that others couldn’t get. The children often have a Canadian education and higher degrees than their parents,” said Smart.

“Cultural heritage cannot be fixed. You can’t freeze it because it’s a living thing. They cannot hold a preconceived notion of cultures frozen in time.

“Market demands are also changing… Her death should not be viewed as a tragedy but as part of the natural cycle of activity in the service industry.”

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Chinese-Canadian cuisine is also evolving. Many chefs are pushing the boundaries of traditional dishes, paving the way for “New Asian” cuisines and restaurants. New Asian cuisine is an umbrella term for dishes that combine traditional flavors with modern cooking techniques and presentation.

Nick Liu, chef and owner of Toronto’s Dai Lo, believes that the new Asian cuisine offers Asian chefs more opportunities to express their heritage and creativity. Dai Lo, meaning “big brother” in Cantonese, is a Chinese restaurant that uses French cooking techniques.

Nick Liu is Executive Chef and owner of Dai Lo, a Chinese restaurant in Toronto.


Contributed by Nick Liu


Inspired by his Chinese Hakka heritage, Liu wanted to find a way to combine his French education with the food he ate growing up.

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While acknowledging Cantonese-style dishes like ginger beef have influences on Sino-Canadian cuisine, Liu said he’s never felt comfortable cooking those dishes.

“The inspiration has always been to put my family and my culture first. I was educated in French and wanted to try to embrace the food I grew up eating and find a symbiotic relationship with the places I worked,” Liu told 770 CHQR.

“I wanted to incorporate them into a style of cooking and a style of restaurant that I would be proud of… I’ve been cooking for a long time now, and if I feel something about this meal, subconsciously, guests will feel something about it, too.”

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Liu also said the new Asian cuisine has empowered him to learn more about his culture and heritage. As with many first-generation Asian immigrants, his ethnicity was often an internal and societal struggle.

“There were times when I hated being Chinese. Actually, I avoided being Chinese. It’s the racism of my own people, but also the experience of trying to fit in with white and Canadian kids… You become a product of your surroundings,” the chef said.

“It took me a long time to become Asian again. I really need to thank the food (my culture) and (be able to) learn how to cook Asian food. So I got to know my culture again and became proud to be Asian.

“It’s amazing how (New Asian Food) is changing people’s perception of Chinese culture. It did for me. The more I learned about my food and my family history, the more I learned about the roots of the dishes I cook.”

https://globalnews.ca/news/9190933/ginger-beef-history-of-chinese-canadian-cuisine/ An ode to ginger beef: the hidden history of Chinese Canadian cuisine



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