When I first embarked on this green onion cake odyssey, all roads seemed to lead to Siu To. Here I was, moments from meeting him. With my notebook and iPhone on the ready, I found a table in the courtyard outside of Zenari’s in Manulife Place and waited for him to be a no-show.
After all, who the hell am I?
“A self-professed Edmonton enthusiast on a quest to elevate the green onion cake to its rightful place as Edmonton’s Official Dish.” I sound like a flake.
I spot him in a second. Who could miss him? He’s wearing one of those trendy, ultra-light puff jackets in lime green. The man is 74. I love him ALREADY. He is walking through, waving at what seems like everyone, but he is here to meet ME!
I offer to buy him a coffee. He refuses and heads inside. He returns with a slice of banana bread. “I can’t come here and not have a slice of this,” he says. Noted.
We dive in. I tell him about the project and he’s on board. Why wouldn’t he be? Some random person is dedicating time and energy to elevate him to the status of Edmonton icon. All I want from him in exchange is his story.
In 1975, Siu To immigrated to Canada via Hong Kong. Originally from northern China, he started out in Alberta’s booming construction industry. He worked a lot; in the evenings, he got hungry.
“You know,” he says “Chinese people only like to eat Chinese food.” At the time there were a few Chinese restaurants in town, but most of them served Cantonese food – not the Mandarin fare to which he was accustomed. Siu was missing home. Fortune smiled on him in the form of an opportunity. In 1979, he was offered the chance to buy a restaurant at a price he could afford. Unfortunately, he knew nothing about restaurants; plenty about delicious food; NOTHING about restaurants.
If nothing else, it was a chance to gorge on the food he had been craving, so he went for it. With his wife Yeenar at his side, he hired a cook and re-named the place Happy Garden.
Siu reflects: “At home people rarely go to restaurants. We are natural hosts. People entertain at home and invite friends and family to eat in this way. I wanted to give Happy Garden the same feel. I wanted to make people feel as though they were coming to my home.”
Armed with a menu of Lemon Chicken, Mu Shu Pork, Hot and Sour Soup and, you guessed it, Green Onion Cakes he waited for customers. It is these cakes that are widely held to be the first ever served in Edmonton.
He paints a picture that suggests that he may have been difficult to work with. Constant clashes with the chef would end in him refusing to bring out the food. Never wanting to sacrifice quality for expedience, he quickly ran through a series of experienced Szechuan chefs. He convinced his wife to take over the kitchen, and Happy Garden was happy once more.
Located in Parkallen, a neighbourhood which at the time was made up largely of university support staff and their families, the restaurant ran lean. A typical day would see Siu or his wife hit the Safeway on 109 Street and Whyte Avenue to pick up groceries for the day. They would then walk the 20 or so blocks to prepare the food for what would never be more than 10 people.
Everything changed in May 1981. As was the routine, Siu was headed to the restaurant groceries in hand, to get ready for dinner. He approached the glass windows to find the restaurant bursting at the seams… with CUSTOMERS (and a small line-up beginning to take shape out the door). What was going on?
He approached one of the patrons to inquire about the situation.
“You haven’t seen it? You’ve been written up by Judy Schultz!”
Judy Schultz was Edmonton’s preeminent food writer at the time. Now retired, she is responsible for writing what is widely believed to be the first review of the green onion cake in Edmonton. Anyone else have shivers? She currently has a blog and is a regular contributor to The Tomato.
Siu laughs as he reflects on the day Judy came in to the restaurant. “She came in with a friend. They ordered one of everything. We got into an argument. It was just too much food. I got even more upset when she said they would take home what they couldn’t finish. It wouldn’t taste the same! I was very particular about my food.”
Basically, with Judy’s glowing review, business blew up. His kids wanted to get involved in what was now a successful restaurant and they hired staff. People came from far and wide to dine at Happy Garden. Life was good.
He smiles as he remembers those days. “In the 1980s, restaurants were a family affair. Once a week people would go out for dinner with their family. Grandparents, parents, kids.; everyone. Not like now. People go out on dates or maybe with friends. If a table ordered green onion cakes, it was touching three generations. They became popular very quickly. ”
Not one to be content in his success, he sold his interest in Happy Garden in 1986 to his head chef. (As an exciting aside, the chef and her family still run Happy Garden today). He embarked on another ambitious venture: The Mongolian Food Experience. It was here that he perfected his green onion cakes. The secret: the traditional Mongolian BBQ grill.
In his words: “It is not hard to make a green onion cake. It just takes care and attention. The grill has to be at the right temperature. Not too hot or it will burn. Not too low or it won’t cook through.”
By now he was an established presence in Edmonton’s food scene. He had been invited to serve on the very first board of Taste of Edmonton to which he brought his famous cakes. Never one to cut corners, he also brought along his grill. He admits that it must have been quite a show to watch them sling the green onion cakes outside.
He reminds me that Taste of Edmonton, the Fringe and Folk Fest were all set-up within a few years of each other. The Edmonton festival TRIFECTA! He was one of the first food vendors to participate in each and always brought along his fan favourite. He would serve it up with a variety of sauces to satisfy a range of palates, including a balsamic vinaigrette and a sour cream and chives concoction. “Not everyone likes spicy!” he scolds.
The cakes really took hold. These were Edmonton’s glory days. The Oilers were unstoppable. Our rivalry with Calgary strengthened our self-image. It wasn’t hard to get people out to new festivals. The city was in the mood to party.
So what happened?? It seemed like green onion cakes were on the fast-track to “Official-dom”.
Siu thinks it’s a combination of factors. When people started seeing him making money with flour and water, everyone started making them. They started trying to find ways to cut corners, churn them out faster. The quality eroded. He started a food company and would sell his cakes frozen, but stopped when he didn’t like how they were being prepared. The 90s were about profit-margins. And we lost Gretzky.
That leads us to today. The cakes are still there, at every festival. Loyalists still line up to taste a piece of history, no matter how simultaneously dry and greasy they are. They are a mandatory accompaniment to pho. They pop up on bar and restaurant menus all over the city. Subconsciously, Edmontonians know what they may not be self-reflective enough to admit: green onion cakes are an Edmonton thing! And we have Siu To to thank.
Siu is now retired, but still has that gleam in his eye that suggests he could be stirred from his slumber for the right opportunity. If you want to try a Siu To green onion cake, he sells them frozen at the St.Albert Farmers Market from June to October. If you’re lucky, he may even give you a demonstration of how to cook one.