Lifestyles

Refining the China connection

Thomas Hopkins,Barbara Robson December 3 1979
Lifestyles

Refining the China connection

Thomas Hopkins,Barbara Robson December 3 1979

Refining the China connection

Lifestyles

Thomas Hopkins

Barbara Robson

During a 10-course banquet at a restaurant in Toronto’s sprawling Chinatown, Nadine Walton gazed at the pale chicken feet resting in a bowl of soup. “They looked like a bunch of little white hands,” she recalls. But as Chinese friends looked on, pride and a spirit of gastronomic adventure conquered aversion; she nibbled at the claws and found them, surprisingly, good. That was two years ago, when | Walton and her Occidental friends ex| plored authentic regional Chinese cuisine by closing their eyes and pointing on menus. Now she shops in cluttered Chinese groceries where baskets of exotic vegetables crowd the sidewalk. She chops and marinates the delicacies and her husband, John, cooks the full-course meals. The two are typical of a growing cadre of Canadians whose palates crave the newfound sensations of the East.

They crowd into Pat’s Gourmet, a two-year-old establishment in Fredericton that has earned a small but substantial reputation throughout the Maritimes for its fiery Szechuan (pronounced sesh-wan) and more subtly flavored Cantonese dishes. They queue for a table at Toronto’s Kowloon Dim Sum which serves steamed rice pastries with richly textured fillings. (Loosely translated, dim sum means to point to your culinary “heart’s delight.”) In Vancouver, where variety flourishes in the more than 100 Chinese restaurants, they tune television sets for cooking lessons from Hong Kong instructor and Vancouver chef Stephen Yan.

“Until recently the pride and variety of true Chinese cooking haven’t been respected,” says Yan. For generations, North Americans expected little more than the No. 4 special: won ton soup, chicken chow mein, fried rice and a fortune cookie. Now, only rarely does one hear aficionados in Toronto speak of “Chinese food” or “Chinese restaurants,” says Martyn Stollar in Exploring Chinatown. Instead, Szechuan cuisine, Cantonese cooking, Hunan style “have become the standard terms of reference used by appar-

ently erudite culinary sinophiles.”

The flowering of Chinese cuisine in Canada can be traced to new immigration patterns in the late 1960s, when eased immigration laws and the 1967 riots in Hong Kong brought 8,272 Chinese to Canada in that year alone. Prior to this influx, the population in Canada’s small Chinatowns consisted largely of single men. “The unadventurous tastes of non-Chinese patrons and the relatively tiny Chinese population allowed the cuisine to atrophy,” says Stollar. But with the new wave came chefs and more restaurants, raising the standard of cooking for Chinese and non-Chinese alike.

The turning point in North American popular interest in sinology was the 1972 Nixon visit to China. The new-look East was reflected in fashion, furniture design and the appearance of the wok, the basic Chinese cooking utensil, in department stores everywhere. Catching up this year, Gourmet magazine, the glossy primer for the competitive dinner-party set, began monthly features on the basics of Chinese cuisine, accompanied by literate excursions into the restaurants of Hong Kong and the streets of New York’s Chinatown.

In major Canadian centres such as Vancouver (with an estimated Chinese population of 80,000) and Toronto (where the community numbers about

90,000) the best of the kitchens produce cooking that ranks with the finest in the world. With increasing competition — more than 230 new restaurants have opened since 1972, bringing the total at last count to more than 1,500—six basic styles have evolved.

Best known and still most numerous are the Sino-Canadian operations, often Mom and Pop businesses that continue to serve what an older generation of Chinese think non-Chinese want to eat. Also on the basic level are noodle houses, usually identifiable by steaming cauldrons of water in the front window. They serve Chinese home-style cooking based on quick-cooked bowls of noodles and vegetables. Further up the scale are the Cantonese restaurants (southern cooking based in rice and a wide variety of ingredients) which increasingly battle for excellence and a slice of the market. Various types of northern and western cooking are found in Szechuanand Peking-style restaurants where spicy dishes rely more on meat and wheat as staples. Banquet houses, specializing in multi-course meals, often ornately combine the styles of the north and the south. And finally there are the dim sum houses where basket-laden trollies may be wheeled about, allowing patrons to choose their “heart’s delight.”

In large cities, the emergence of such diversity has allowed many workers, such as Vancouver businessmen Bob Thorn and Lew Mitchell, to count on their favorites at lunchtime. Both have been eating dim sum for three years.

“You’re never going to get a variety of tastes like this in a steak house,” says Mitchell, gesturing at the battlefield of small empty dishes on their table at Ming’s restaurant. In Winnipeg, Andrew Allentuck, occasional restaurant reviewer for The Winnipeg Tribune, says: “The old monosodium-glutamateridden cheap meat and bean-sprout ripoff masquerading as Cantonese cuisine is slowly being replaced by authentic regional cuisine.” But bird’s nest soup is expensive, hard to find and has to be ordered in advance. And what is difficult in Winnipeg is often impossible in the Maritimes. Says Dalhousie University Professor Toni Laidlaw: “When I really want to eat Chinese food, I go to Boston or Toronto or New York. Nobody’s yet told me about a great little restaurant in Moncton or anywhere else.” Laidlaw and her friend, landscaper John Weagle, often combine a passion for Vladimir Horowitz with their enthusiasm for Szechuan cooking by taking music and food excursions. On one memorable trip to Toronto they managed a Horowitz concert and three restaurants in their first night.

As the food improves, however, the restaurant decor largely remains rooted in the arborite and mandarin kitsch of

another age and menus continue to read like a culinary War and Peace. Still, for some, the comparative inelegance of dining Chinese is unimportant. “I like to go out to eat, to eat, not to get the ambience, the candles,” says Brigitte Allan of Toronto. “And I like the price. A dinner for two rarely costs more than $10.”

But even as the splendid variety of Chinese food is opening for Canadians, clouds are gathering. Historically, in “the dirty old times,” Chinese were relegated to the lowly occupations of cooks and laundrymen. The stigma remains. Today Chinese-Canadian children are raised to be doctors and lawyers, not restaurant owners. Emerging from the kitchen after a 14-hour day Danny Yang, a Taipei-trained chef and creator of one of the best Peking duck banquets on the Pacific coast, says emphatically: “I don’t want my sons to do this.” All too soon Canadians may find that, having developed refined tastes, they will be unable to find chefs to satisfy them.

Peter Carlyle-Gordge

Tom MacDonnell