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From Cathay to Canada: Chinese Cuisine in Transition--a Report on a Symposium

by Jo Marie Powers

Conferences, Meetings, Announcements, and Reports

Fall Volume: 1997 Issue: 4(3) page(s): 13 and 20

"Chinese immigration to the Land of Gold or Golden Mountain, very popular names for Canada, began in the 1850's" said Valerie Mah, Principal of the Bruce Public School in Toronto, at a one day symposium held in Toronto, Canada on April 12, 1997. She went on to advise that "thousands of Chinese male workers emigrated to Canada between 1881 and 1885 to build the cross-Canada railroad enticed by the daily wage of $1.00 compared with seven cents in China.

Entry to the Chinese was shut down in 1923 leaving a predominant bachelor population and decades of discrimination. Nevertheless, this small number of early Chinese-Canadians spread across the continent with many of them opening Chinese restaurants in nearly every small village and hamlet. In the 1960's and 1970's, immigration and attitudes changed dramatically and Chinese immigration accelerated.

In the 1880's, a total of only ten Chinese persons were recorded as living in Toronto; this contrasts with the estimated four hundred thousand Chinese living in metro-Toronto today. In 1997, many of the affluent business people recently emigrated from Hong Kong; they have changed the face of Toronto and its cuisine so that most Torontonians are as familiar with dim sum as they are with Canadian pancakes and maple syrup.

Trolleys for dim sum are wheeled around every day in Chinese restaurants located in five Chinatowns in and around metro-Toronto. But, most non-Chinese do not know what they are eating as they choose from their plates of incredibly delicious morsels. Professor Bill Wong, coordinator of the Chinese Chef Training Program at George Brown College in Toronto, explained many of the dim sum favorites before the conference attendees went to the Young Lok Restaurant to enjoy a Dim Sum Luncheon there. Har Gow and Siu Mai are Professor Wong’s favorite Dim Sum choices. Har Gow’s steamed translucent scallop-shaped morsels have pink shrimp filling showing through its paper thin wrapping. Sui Mai, one of the earliest developed dim sum dishes in China, combines shrimp and pork filling in extra-thin pasta sheets. Wong told the audience there are over two thousand varieties of dim sum with about fifty offered regularly in restaurants. Symposium attendees tried at least a dozen at Young Lok, a highly successful mini-chain of Chinese restaurants in Toronto.

While there is a recent trend for Chinese ingredients to mainstream, this was not always the case in Canada. According to Ms. Mah, early Chinese immigrants imported products from China, but “often lived lives out of touch with the host society.”

Dr. Jacqueline M. Newman, editor of this magazine, namely Flavor and Fortune, was one of two keynote speakers at this symposium. She explained the cultural significance and symbolism of 'usual and unusual' ingredients. The apple (a favorite Canadian fruit) though usual, she said, in China it symbolizes peace, their blossoms connoting beauty. They are often pictured with magnolia blooms so that the home they adorn will be honored, rich, and full of beauty. One of the most unusual ingredients she discussed was sea cucumber or beche de mer, which is harvested from off the coast of Canada, and elsewhere.

This seafood revered by the Chinese at least since the firth century, is known as an aphrodisiac and called 'sea ginseng.' Snakes (served in some Toronto Chinese restaurants) are courageous and clever, she went on, and are supposed to cure impotence or too much sexual energy. The gall bladder of the snake, she continued, is touted to heal diseases in or caused by the gall bladder, the snake’s liver able to repair the human liver, and so forth. Dr. Newman entertained her audience with lively slides of a myriad of Chinese ingredients, many she and her husband took during travels to China. Food professionals who attended the conference were able to satisfy their visual and intellectual curiosity about numerous foods found in Toronto’s Chinese markets.

Well-known Canadian cookbook author, Stephen Wong, the other key-note speaker, was equally fascinating. For those who don’t know, Wong wrote Heart Smart Chinese Cooking, a winning book that sold over one million copies. Most recently, he co-authored New World Noodles; it is reviewed in this issue. Wong noted that “food to the Chinese is much more that what feeds the body” and he told all that "the roots of Chinese food culture run wide and deep." He shared that around Chinese New Year, also called Spring Festival, foods given as gifts extend good wishes to others while foods that are eaten during this festival are highly symbolic. For example, he talked about Mandarin oranges thought to bring prosperity, sticky rice pudding had for friendships and career advancement, and roasted watermelon seed and candied lotus seeds for many progeny. He told the rapt audience, that those "who need to pore over self-help books can actually ingest a psychological edge."

Dr. Huiping Zou, Visiting Associate Professor at the University of Guelph Hotel School from Jiaotong University in Xian China, quoted the Chinese philosopher Lao Zi who said that "governing a great nation is much like cooking a small fish." This refers to the lofty position cooking has had in Chinese culture throughout history. "There are four central concerns in preparation of every Chinese dish," she stated. They are "color, aroma, flavor, and nutrition." Any one entree will combine three to five colors selected from ingredients that are light green, dark green, red, yellow, white, black or caramel-color. Some ingredients that contribute to aroma are scallions, fresh ginger, garlic, and chili peppers. These flavors, she added, provide richness to a dish without covering up the natural flavor of the components. The last item she discussed was the principle of nutrition and harmonization of foods(ting nai tiao ho). This can be traced back a thousand years when ancestors related the five flovors of sweet,sour, bitter, piquant, and salty to thenutritional needs pf thefive major organsystems of the body (heart, liver spleen/pancreas, lungs, and kidneys). Dr. Zou illustrated these principles with slides of traditional Northern dishes.

The non-Chinese in the Audience paid cloase attention to the ettiquette lecture and demonstration given by Karen Fan, Applied Human Nutrition student at the University of Guelph. "A tremendous number of restrictions are set up for chopstick usage," she said. Aside from holding chopsticks correctly, chopsticks musty never be licked or bitten, are never stuck into foods, and are placed on chopstick rests or at the side of the plate when not in use. Rice, she explained, in never eaten grain by grain, it is appropriate to cup the bowl of rice in one hand. One should hold the bowl close to the mouth and correctly scoop the rice in using the chopsticks. It is mos t proper, she added, to get the food from bowl to mouth without letting the chopsticks touch the mouth--that was a challenge not met by most who tried!

The day of lectures and cooking demonstrations ended with a sampling of teas at O Mei Restaurant. This day-long syposium was inspired by the first ISACC Confrecne several yeas ago in Flushuing New York when Dorothy Duncan, Executive Director of the Ontatio Historical Society and I both attended. After it, we formed a colaboratin--The Ontario Historical Society and the University of Guelph, and set about organizing this event. Our next goal is to publish the papers; we will let you know when they are ready fo sale.
Jo Marie Powers, Adjunct Professor at the University of Guelph School of Hotel and Food Administration in Guelph, Ontario organized this symposium with Dorothy Duncan of the Ontario Historical Society.

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