Guests at Passages Canada’s Stories that Nourish event try Sang Kim’s kimchi, which uses his grandmother’s recipe. Photo: ISABELLE DOCTO
by THE ORIGAMI STAFF
Fortune cookies did not originate in China, so why did Chinatown historian Arlene Chan choose to hand them out during a talk about the evolution of Chinese food in Toronto?
The fact that a visit to a Chinese restaurant in Canada (or the U.S. for that matter) will not be complete without them is why, Chan told attendees at Stories that Nourish. Chinese or not, fortune cookies symbolize just how integrated Chinese cuisine has become with Canadian life, said Chan.
Sponsored by Passages Canada, Stories that Nourish was dubbed “an evening of listening, tasting and storytelling to celebrate Asian Heritage Month” and marked launch of the group’s new video series.
Held on May 19 at Daniels Spectrum, Chan joined three other storytellers — who not only shared delectable stories about how food intersects with memory and identity, but also brought family specialties for guests to savour.
Celebrated Nota Bene proprietor and executive chef David Lee brought split pea fritters with pico de gallo sauce, celebrating his Hakka Chinese, English and Mauritian heritage. The fritters – a.k.a. gateaux piments – are a popular street food in Mauritius, where Lee lived for four years as a young child.
Writer, social activist and restaurateur Sang Kim (of Windup Bird Cafe, Yakitori Bar and Seoul Food Co.) brought kim chi, whose recipe he inherited from his Korean grandmother.
Korean-Canadian entrepreneur Jason Lee, who regaled attendees with stories about his family’s immigrant experience, brought his mother’s bulgogi. It is the same signature dish served at his family’s restaurant Korean Village Restaurant, located in the heart of Toronto’s Korea Town on Bathurst and Bloor.
Immigrants – wherever they may be — often bring at least one dish that reminds them of where they’re originally from and for Sang Kim, “kimchi is it.”
He had grown up with his grandmother in a farming village outside of Seoul while his mother made her way to Canada. He and his grandmother eventually moved to Toronto when he was six.
While Korean tradition dictates that a mother teaches her first child how to make kim chi, Sang Kim’s mother was too busy holding down various jobs that she had no time to learn the craft, he recalled. And so he begged his grandmother to teach him instead. The two days he spent learning how to make kim chi with his grandmother had been a transformative experience, he said. “By teaching me she was committing a sacramental act. It was an act of love.”
David Lee, who is third generation in a family line of chefs, credits a childhood growing up with aunts and uncles — who, all in the spirit of fun and passion, tried to outdo each other in cooking — for his career as one of Toronto’s top chefs. Born in England, he and his family moved to Mauritius when he was six years old. He recalled times when although there was no electricity on the island“there was always food on the table.” A grandmother taught him how to kill, pluck and dress a chicken when he was six, said Lee, smiling at the recollection.
His childhood in Mauritius, said Lee, taught him the value of living off the land.
This respect for nature’s gift is demonstrated in his restaurant’s focus on serving food that reflects Canada’s four seasons, said Lee, who also enthused about sourcing his ingredients from Toronto’s “fantastic farmers’ markets.”
Chan, a third-generation Chinese Canadian and author of many books, including The Chinese in Toronto from 1878, walked attendees down Toronto Chinatown memory lane. There were only two kinds of Chinese restaurants back in 1878, she said — holes in the walls in Chinatown, in which would fit one cook and a couple of tables and chairs and were only patronized by those of Chinese heritage and restaurants, “outside Chinatown,” meaning outside Dundas and Spadina.
Things changed after World War II when the so-called “Big Four” restaurants opened in Chinatown: Sai Woo, Nanking, Lichee and Kwong Chow (which Chan’s family owned). These restaurants typically had hundreds of seats and offered Chinese-Canadian food you wouldn’t find anywhere in China: egg rols, chop suey and sweet and sour chicken balls.
Sunday dinners were important in Chan’s family and since running a restaurant was a seven-day routine for her parents, they spent them at Kwong Chow. “We had no TV at home but the restaurant had, so we were watching The Beatles and the Ed Sullivan show not with Swanson but with good Chinese food,” she recalled.
With the influx of immigrants from Hong Kong in 1967, Toronto’s Chinese food scene changed yet again as chefs introduced Canadians to the delights of dim sum, said Chan.
The US-China rapprochement that took Richard Nixon to China in the 1970s further ramped up the popularity of Chinese food, said Chan. When Nixon came back from China, he talked about the elaborate nine-course Chinese banquets he had, prompting North Americans to have the same experience that he had. “Everything Chinese became popular” from the ubiquitous chopsticks to woks in people’s homes, said Chan.
The 1980s brought a new wave of immigrants from Hong Kong, who took with them food from various regions of China. The Cantonese, village-style cuisine gave way to Hakka, Sichuan, Hunan and Shanghai food – a development that further cemented the place of Chinese cuisine in Canadian life, said Chan.
For his part, Jason Lee, who now heads the Korea Town BIA, talked about his own journey as a Korean-Canadian. “If someone said 15 years ago that I would be standing here before you, I’d be the first person to say, ‘you must be kidding,'” he said, noting how he only began to appreciate his Korean identity as an adult. Lee was born in Seoul but the family moved to Toronto when he was little. He was quick to adopt his Canadian roots – becoming a huge hockey and wrestling fan — and was never really involved in the family business. After studying at McMaster University and Mohawk College he had a job lined up as an actuary. But his mother asked if he could help at the restaurant part-time. The rest, he said, is history. Lee has become some kind of an ambassador for Korea Town, where he leads walking tours aside from helping his parents run Korean Village. In 2000, he took the free Korean classes given at the Korean Consulate and is now able to write, read and speak Korean.
“I have come full circle,” said Lee adding that what he has shared “isn’t really about my story but about my parents and their sacrifice.”
Aside from kim chi, Lee said his mother had asked him to bring along Kerr lollipops – the same sweets they give out for free at their restaurant. She wanted people to know that they were not only high-quality sweets but more importantly, they were made in Canada, he said. “She wanted you to know that we support Canadian companies.”
Anthony Wilson-Smith, president and CEO of Historica Canada stressed the importance of the event, saying “each of Toronto’s many communities have great stories to tell.” He added: “We’re pleased to be able to offer a forum for them and others to do so through our Passages Canada program.”
A national storytelling program, Passages Canada’s goal is to foster “cross-cultural dialogue in Canadian communities.”