How did green onion cakes become one of Edmonton's favourite foods?

Chris Chang-Yen Phillips is hosting a panel discussion about Edmonton's history with green onion cakes on Saturday at the Mercury Room.

Most of Chris Chang-Yen Phillips's research led him back to one man: Siu To

Green onion cakes are linked with Edmonton, and Chris Chang-Yen Phillips decided to find out why. (Suresh Doss/CBC)

Edmonton's relationship with green onion cakes is mysterious.

A popular dish in northern China, the cakes have somehow carved out a home in Edmonton.

And no one is really sure why.

Chris Chang-Yen Phillips, Edmonton's historian laureate and host of Let's Find Out podcast, decided to try to figure that out.

"It's interesting that [green onion cakes] feel like an Edmonton thing," Chang-Yen Phillips told CBC's Radio Active. "In some ways, it is, because if you go to other cities in Canada, you can't really find them.

"But it's also very widespread in China in many different forms."

Chang-Yen Phillips will host a panel discussion about Edmonton's history with green onion cakes on Saturday at the Mercury Room. During his research, he found the dish was popularized in the 1980s. Every person he asked led him to one man.

"Everybody I asked for leads on this question kept pointing me back to Siu To," he said.

'A darling item'

Siu To came from northern China and started his first restaurant in 1978. His green onion cakes were an immediate hit. No other restaurants in Edmonton were selling them at the time, so anyone who wanted them had to go to Happy Garden or his other restaurant, Mongolian Food Experience.

Chang-Yen Phillips says the green onion cake was a good festival food and represents a change in Chinese cuisine found in Edmonton. (Finn Phillips/Supplied)

To said many of his customers were Taiwanese people who came to the U.S. for school and found jobs in Edmonton.

"They were the first ones to come because I satisfied all their cravings," he said in an interview with CBC's Radio Active. "Then, they [would] bring their colleagues, their friends, so my little restaurant was very, very busy at the time."

The cakes weren't truly an Edmonton staple until they were sold widely at events like Taste of Edmonton, Folk Fest and the Fringe.

'It's my heritage'

To was asked to sell food at those events. He could have gone with a stir-fry that would have been much easier to mass produce, but chose the green onion cake.

"The average cook, they wouldn't do it," he said. "They'd just say, 'It wastes my time.' "

A typical cook could make as many as seven dishes in the time it takes to cook one pre-made green onion cake, To said.

"It's just not profitable for the other restaurants," he said. "But for me, it's my heritage. I like to share the unique food with my customer." 

He wants to share the recipe with people who want to make them, so he posted a YouTube video in January.

The green onion cake was a perfect festival food: an unmistakable aroma, easy to carry around, not messy to eat.

"It represents a bit of a shift in Chinese cuisine in Alberta from being a Cantonese-style cuisine to sort of experimenting with other food traditions in China," Chang-Yen Phillips said.

To's restaurants were the only ones making green onion cakes, so once they became popular they started getting calls to sell them to other restaurants around the city. "That was becoming our calling card," he said.

Many restaurants around the city are now selling green onion cakes, both in the shape of pancakes and a doughnut-type shape.

It's my heritage. I like to share the unique food with my customer.- Siu To

Through his research, Chang-Yen Phillips found the difference between the two styles could be whether they were handmade. The pancake-style green onion cakes were handmade, whereas the ones with the holes in the middle may have been made to deep fry.

Siu To is often credited with popularizing green onion cakes in Edmonton. (Siu To/YouTube)

But Chang-Yen Phillips said green onion cakes could have become popular by a stroke of luck.

"Maybe people in Edmonton really like fried bread relative to people in other places," he said, laughing.

But unlike the green onion cake, it's probably not that simple.

With his panel on Saturday, Chang-Yen Phillips hopes to explore that. You can find more information on Saturday's event here.