Redefining authenticity: How Chop Suey and Sweet & Sour Pork reflect Chinese Canadian values

Why is Chinese Canadian food unfairly considered inauthentic? As the daughter of immigrant restaurant owners, Eng C. shares the history behind Chinese Canadian cuisine, and the powerful values reflected in its dishes.

“The history of the world is on your plate. All food is the expression of a long struggle and a long story.”

Anthony Bourdain

How do we define authenticity in food? People often say “Chinese Canadian restaurants are not authentic”. But what exactly is authentic food? The test of authenticity in a dish can vary, but it often boils down to a question: Can this chef thousands of miles away replicate that region’s famous dish? If not, then the dish is understood as inauthentic. 

In other words, authenticity in food has become equivalent to replication, or how well we can imitate what has already existed for decades or even centuries. But how does this definition properly represent the deep-rooted cultural values that originally inspired the creation of that very dish in the first place? Simple: it doesn’t.

Growing up in rural Manitoba, restaurant life was my life. I began working at my family’s Chinese Canadian restaurant at eleven, taking orders and handling cash. I woke to the sound of pots clanging in the kitchen, walked around in my pyjamas with customers in my home, and took takeout orders in between finishing my schoolwork. Working in the restaurant also became a way to spend quality time with my parents. This lifestyle may sound foreign to many, but others like me who grew up in similar small-town Chinese Canadian restaurants scattered across the country, it was normal.

Visiting my family’s restaurant years after we sold it brought back childhood memories. Small Town Chinese Canadian restaurants are often characterized by simple minimal decor. Photo Credit: Eng C.

As the only Asian family operating a small business in town, working in the restaurant alongside my parents taught me valuable, practical life lessons. It taught me that life was not always fair, and that we needed to work hard to create our own opportunities. Perhaps most importantly, it taught me that adaptability is our greatest strength. As such, I have always been unsettled by how, despite its history of adapting to its new environment, Chinese Canadian cuisine is often cast aside as inauthentic. It seemed a great disservice to the cuisine’s incredible cultural importance. 

Why do we chase such a narrow-minded definition of authenticity, which carries with it an underlying assumption that sameness is good and what is not the same is bad? This definition of authenticity rings false to me. Authentic food should be defined by the cultural values it carries, rather than by its unwavering veracity to the original dish and the land it comes from.

The Taste of Resiliency 

Through my travels, I have learned that food and culture are inseparable. In many countries, we can only begin to truly understand their culture through food. Chinese Canadian culture is no different. 

The so-called “inauthentic” food of Chinese Canadian restaurants is built on the genuine culture of first Chinese immigrants in Canada. Crossing the Pacific Ocean on often perilous journeys, these immigrants had perseverance, entrepreneurial spirit, and a willingness to adapt. These qualities are the backbone of each and every Chinese Canadian restaurant across the nation. In order to be successful against all odds, these small restaurant owners creatively adapted to the limited local ingredients available in their rural communities, as well as the local palates of people who had never tasted Chinese food before. As a result, these “inauthentic” Chinese dishes are, in fact, authentic Chinese Canadian dishes. 

Our village’s Grain Elevator, an iconic symbol of every Canadian Prairie town. Photo Credit: Eng C.

Many of these restaurant owners also cleverly mastered the economics of supply and demand, despite lacking the privilege of higher education. Even then, they were still forced to overcome racism and societal challenges as they settled in a community of peoples who had never seen a Chinese person before. These qualities, which allowed such restaurants to survive and thrive, played an important part in building the foundation of both Chinese Canadian cuisine and culture— and continues to benefit Chinese Canadian communities today, in ways both obvious and otherwise.

Before my family settled in this Manitoban village, the surrounding First Nations and Ukranian communities had never seen what they called a “Chinaman” before. My father had come to Canada with just the clothes on his back, ninety dollars in his pocket, and could not speak a word of English. He was also not blessed with the opportunity of education, having been born in a turbulent time in Chinese history during the Civil War and its subsequent famine. 

In this foreign land, my parents had no family or support system. The only thing they could rely on was a promise to themselves that they would never beg for food or money. This promise of resiliency proved to be the backbone of their success, from their humble beginnings in an impoverished Chinese village to their successful restaurant business on the Canadian prairies. Throughout their first years running the restaurant and well into my teenage years, our family would experience our share of racism and challenges from others, that in which slowly transformed over time into a level of cultural acceptance.

Just like many others across the country, our Chinese Canadian restaurant has now been taken over by a new generation of Chinese immigrants who had come to make this rural Canadian prairie town their home. As the second generation of restaurant owners, they will continue to evolve Chinese Canadian culture as they face their own unique challenges. As they navigate these new challenges, Chinese Canadian cuisine will continue to reflect the adaptability and resiliency of the culture that created it.

Sweet & Sour Pork, a classic dish in Chinese Canadian cuisine. My dad’s famous sweet & sour pork dish was so popular, people would drive hours from neighbouring towns just for a taste. Photo Credit: Eng C.

Food, and the New “Authentic”

Through the bridging of two cultures with food, each bite of an authentic Chinese Canadian dish carries the taste of sacrifice, courage, and hard work that these first immigrants faced to make a modest living in this new “land of opportunity”.

Every time I see a Chinese Canadian restaurant in a small town, I feel reminiscent. There will always be a special place in my heart for authentic Chinese Canadian food, the hustle and bustle of the kitchen, the smell of my parents’ sweet & sour pork, and of course the quintessential chop suey that has come to represent Chinese Canadian cuisine.

Chinese Canadian is its own culture, and its cuisine is an authentic reflection of this unique culture. Next time you are driving through a small town, I hope you will stop at the local Chinese Canadian restaurant, and taste its dishes with an open mind. With each bite, I encourage you to give the food a chance to tell you its story about culture, courage, and perseverance. 


See also: Central Asia: just as Asian as sushi and chopsticks, How an ethnic name can be a cultural stand

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