“I forgot how much I love this food”: Author Lily Cho explains the joy of the “generic Chinese” restaurant
Downtown Toronto's Chinatown is home to more than 80 restaurants. What makes each place unique? We invite experts to walk us through the spices, seasonings and subtle geographic influences over lunch
Restaurant name: Lee Garden
Address: 331 Spadina Ave., 416-593-9524
Open since: 1978
Culinary influences: Old-school Cantonese
Signature dish: Tofu pie
Spice level: Nothing hotter than black pepper
If you’re writing about Chinese restaurants, you’re going to have to speak with Lily Cho, an English literature professor at York University who has established herself as an authority on the subject with her book Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small Town Canada. (Full disclosure: She is also a dear friend. Not that I’ve read her book.)
“I’m not here to say this is the best Chinese food you’ll ever have,” says Cho, running a finger along the laminated, olive green menu at Lee Garden. “But for some people, when you say Chinese food, this is Chinese food.”
A fixture of Chinatown since 1978, Lee Garden has made no concession to contemporary interior design or menu trends, unlike the new breed of Chinese restaurants sprouting up around it on Spadina: One Hour with its minimalist, Nordic décor and beanbag chairs; the customizable menu of Chine Hot Pot & Noodles; the Chinese-Japanese mashup and fancy cocktails of Jackpot Chicken Rice. It remains so popular with uptown Jews that the rabbi from nearby Minsk Synagogue will occasionally come in to recruit when he’s short on numbers to make a minyan—a gathering of 10 Jewish adults, traditionally men, required for certain rituals.
“When we say ‘generic Chinese’, we actually mean Cantonese Hong Kong food,” says Cho, an English literature professor at York University. “In Canada, that’s what Chinese food was for a very long time, because of immigration patterns.”
Cho picks all her childhood favourites from the menu: chow mein, beef and Chinese broccoli (above), snow pea leaves, fried rice, seafood in taro bird’s nest. After noting that we’ve ordered four dishes with the number four in them (64, 74, 84 and 94), our server laughs off the bad luck omen. She asks us if we want lai tong.
“Do you know about lai tong?” Cho asks me. I don’t.
“You go to a Chinese restaurant, you order a bunch of food and then they bring you a soup that you didn’t ask for?”
I shake my head, never having received this bonus dish.
The server returns with a bowl of cloudy broth studded with a few hunks of pork and beans.
“I guess this is a thing that happens mostly to Chinese people. You haven’t been eating with enough Chinese people.”
In addition to her academic credentials, Cho is the child of Chinese immigrant restaurateurs.
“My dad, both my uncles, worked in kitchens. My cousins. All the men. The women, true to stereotype, all worked in laundries. My mother is still working in a laundry.”
Cho’s father is from a small village outside Guangzhou, in southern China. Her mother is from Hong Kong. In the early 1970s, after being arrested and tortured by the government, they moved to Whitehorse where they opened a restaurant with no experience.
“My father didn’t know how to cook. Which is amazing because he ran a restaurant for years.”
But that’s typical, Cho says, of many older Chinese Canadian restaurateurs, who came here not as culinary entrepreneurs, but escapees from political oppression.
“For me, growing up, Chinese was very uncomplicated. It was just what my family ate and what my family cooked.”
Cho’s eyes light up when the bird’s nest arrives.
“This used to be my favourite when I was little,” she says, breaking off a piece of the half-shell fried taro root lattice that holds a cluster of shrimp, scallops, octopus, squid, snow peas and celery. “Although the bird’s nest was made out of fried noodles, not taro root.”
Lee Garden is still one of the fancier places in the neighbourhood. Enough that they have white tablecloths. But not so much that they bring two sets of chopsticks per person, one to serve with and one to eat. We pick at the dishes in the table’s centre with our chopsticks rather than bother much with our plates.
“I was shocked,” remembers Cho, “the first time I ate at a white person’s house, maybe fourth grade, that all the food wasn’t just in the middle. I’ve gotten used to it now but it was really surprising.”
Like Cho’s mother, the owner of Lee Garden is from Hong Kong. And while there’s a commonality of cooking, it’s in the generalized Cantonese sense. The size of the cosmopolitan city, volume of international influences and concentration of wealth preclude Hong Kong from having any singular style. And anyways, Lee Garden is generations removed from the hip modernity of what’s going on there now.
As another half dozen dishes arrive, they are uniformly high on salt and low on spice. The common element that emerges is cornstarch thickened sauce. It’s used sparingly over the garlicky snow pea leaves, a little more liberally to coat the strips of beef and gai lan, generously on the chow mein and positively torrential in the mushroom gravy that covers the tofu pies — pucks of tofu stuffed with mushrooms and scallions. Cho had insisted on the tofu pie before we had even opened our menus.
“This is a Lee Garden special. Everything else we’re having, I ate as a kid.”
She is having her Anton Ego moment, delighting in each mouthful, every cornstarch-varnished dish pulling her down into the happier moments of an otherwise difficult childhood.
“I forgot how much I love this food. I’ve been so busy eating fancy new food. I’m very pleased that there’s such a diversity of Chinese food available now, that we talk about the regional specialization and differentiation. But I kind of miss the time when Chinese was just Chinese.”