Ginger Beef | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Ginger Beef

Ginger beef is a dish featuring deep-fried strips of battered beef in a sticky and slightly spicy sauce. The beef is stir-fried with vegetables like bell peppers and onions and served over a bed of rice. It’s said to have been invented by a chef named George Wong at Calgary’s Silver Inn in the 1970s. It quickly spread around the country. Today, ginger beef can be found in restaurants from coast to coast. Ginger beef is well-loved and is a prime example of Chinese cuisine in Canada that blends Chinese influences with Western ingredients and cooking techniques.

History of Chinese Canadian Food

Immigrants from China first arrived on the West Coast of Canada in the 1850s. These early immigrants mostly came from the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, where Cantonese cooking is the most popular cuisine. As such, many of the first Chinese Canadian restaurants served Cantonese food.

When the first Chinese immigrants to Canada arrived in the late 1850s, they didn’t have access to the same ingredients that they were accustomed to. Plus, Chinese chefs needed to develop dishes that would be popular with their non-Chinese clientele. Dishes like broccoli beef, which substituted the Chinese vegetable gai lan with the more accessible broccoli, became takeout staples and epitomized the fusion between the two cultures.

Other iconic dishes of this era that combined Chinese and North American culinary influences include General Tso’s chicken, chop suey, chicken balls and ginger beef. (See Popular Chinese Dishes in Canada.)

Origins of Ginger Beef

Ginger beef was invented in Calgary in the 1970s at the Silver Inn Restaurant. In 1975, sisters Lily Wong and Louise Tsang opened the restaurant as a chop suey restaurant, serving up Chinese Canadian food. Lily and her husband, George Wong, were running the restaurant together and knew they needed to boost alcohol sales in order to keep the business afloat. They hoped that adding smaller, snack-like dishes to the menu to serve alongside drinks would help. Wong, who had worked in Peking-style restaurants in Hong Kong, remembered a sweet and chewy beef dish — sort of like beef jerky — that was popular in China at the time. But, when he tried adding it to the menu at the Silver Inn, it wasn’t very popular. Calgarian diners were more used to their Alberta beef being tender, not chewy. (See also Beef Cattle Farming.) Plus, the dish was far too spicy for Canadian palates of the 1970s.

Wong continued to test recipes and noticed that much of his clientele had an affinity for fried foods like French fries. He tried to combine the two by preparing his beef like fries. After some experimentation, Wong created his new dish by first coating thin strips of beef in a batter. This created a crisp outer layer while the meat inside stayed tender and juicy, which was more familiar for Calgarians. Then, like so many other Chinese Canadian chefs at the time, Wong toned down the spice level. To complete the dish, Wong created a sweet-and-sour chili-ginger-garlic sauce that he thought was like ketchup to go with his new French fries-like dish. He coated the deep-fried beef with this sauce, inventing a brand new dish.

The resulting dish was a thick, slightly crunchy beef stir fry with crunchy and tender beef. The meat was coated in a sweet-and-sour sauce with a very mild spice flavour. The Wongs named the dish “deep-fried shredded beef in chili sauce.”

The dish became a hit. Diners flocked to the Silver Inn to try Wong’s creation. Soon, diners in the region, who mistakenly attributed the sauce's signature spiciness to ginger, began asking their local Chinese restaurants for “ginger beef.” The dish began to pop up on other menus in Chinese restaurants around Canada and, eventually, abroad.

Ginger Beef’s Legacy

While ginger beef was invented in Calgary, the uniquely Canadian dish soon became a staple of chop suey restaurants and Chinese takeout menus throughout Alberta and the Prairies. Ginger beef is also often seen in food courts and casual Chinese restaurants.

The dish also represents the fusion between Western and Chinese food that was necessary for Chinese Canadians. In order to survive and keep their businesses viable, Chinese Canadians adapted recipes from their country of origin to be more palatable for Canadian diners. Sometimes this meant replacing traditional ingredients with more accessible ones. Other times, it led to the creation of new recipes and dishes that become new classics. (See Chinese Food in Canada.)