When Siu To opened a restaurant in 1979, he had only one ambition. The former construction worker, who immigrated to Edmonton from northern China four years earlier, simply wanted to cook and serve the homestyle Mandarin cuisine he so greatly missed. But To had no idea that one of the eatery’s menu items would soon become the toast of Edmonton.
Almost the moment his now-cherished green onion cakes were scooped from To’s skillet, local foodies beat a path to the door of his Happy Garden restaurant in Parkallen to sample the appetizer. To then made a killing selling his cakes at Taste of Edmonton, the Edmonton Folk Music Festival and the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival in the early 1980s.
“It caught us by surprise!” exclaims To, who has since moved on to create and run Fusion Innovative Food. “Even people who don’t like green onions tell me they enjoy green onion cakes!”
Today, much like smoked meat is to Montreal and chicken wings are to Buffalo, green onion cakes are synonymous with Edmonton. They’re requisite festival fare and are in dozens of local eateries, from Blue Willow Restaurant to The Underground Tap and Grill. The cakes were showcased in a Royal Alberta Museum exhibit on prairie Chinese restaurants in 2013, and profiled in Charlene Rooke’s book Edmonton: Secrets of the City. Bloggers as far away as Halifax acknowledge the green onion cake’s status in Edmonton’s culinary culture. But one local food fan wants to take the cakes to an even higher level.
“I feel it’s time the city officially pronounces green onion cakes as Edmonton’s official dish,” says GreenOnionCakes.com creator Salma Kaida, who launched her project on the Make Something Edmonton website in 2013. “What I really want to see is some political initiative.”
Kaida recently started an online petition, and her campaign is supported by Mayor Don Iveson, Councillor Scott McKeen and local media. She also has a few restaurateurs on her side, including Blue Plate Diner chef Cean Holmes, who agrees that, outside northern China, the cakes seem to be unique to Edmonton.
“When I was living in Grande Prairie before coming here, I asked my wife what these green onion cakes were all about,” he says. “I’ve since seen them in Las Vegas and here and there, but not to the extent that they’re available in Edmonton. I couldn’t take them off the menu if I tried.”
If it’s mystifying why only Edmonton has embraced green onion cakes, it’s even more peculiar as to how a simple pan-fried dish made from little more than dough and green onions ever received this much attention in the first place. It’s common for fans to argue over their preferred cakes, which range from a flatbread to a pastry. The variance depends on whether the water used to make the bread is hot or cold – warmer water makes the dough rise higher.
To thinks the answer is in the straightforward contents. “I think it must be that it’s basically a tasty bread and the ingredients are very simple.”
However, Kaida believes the basics of a green onion cake are symbolic of the city’s character. “Green onion cakes are just like Edmontonians,” she says. “They lack pretense. They’re not trying to be anything. They just are.”