There’s one iconic Canadian dish that’s a “must try” in Calgary, and you won’t find it at the steakhouse. Instead, head straight to Chinatown — the birthplace of sticky-sweet ginger beef. Here, you can savour a plate of crispy and golden battered beef swimming in a sticky, spicy sauce, often served over rice.
“It usually has deep-fried beef, ginger, peppers, carrots and onions, and is served in a sweet sauce that is a bit like General Tso’s,” says Lenore Newman, food historian and author of Speaking in Cod Tongues: A Canadian Culinary Journey. “I see it as an excellent example of the early mixing of Canadian and Chinese tastes.”
Food lovers have likely encountered this crunchy, satisfying dish in restaurants across Canada and abroad, but there’s nothing quite like eating “real deal” ginger beef in Calgary.
“Whenever I go to Chinatown in Calgary, ginger beef is in the back of my mind,” says Ryan O’Flynn, chef at Calgary’s acclaimed The Guild Restaurant and winner of the 2015 Canadian Culinary Championship. “It’s a staple. When the Chinese restaurants get ready for a busy night, they’ve got the 150 portions of ginger beef ready and probably 30-50 of everything else.”
Chinese food wasn’t always so popular in Cowtown. In the early- to mid-20th-century, Chinese-owned restaurants struggled to popularize Peking-inspired dishes, and instead served comfort fare like burgers, fries and grilled cheese sandwiches. In the 1970s, George Wong, chef at The Silver Inn in Calgary, was looking for ways to boost business and make his menu more appealing to Western patrons.
Playing with a recipe from Northern China and inspired by British pub grub, Chef Wong deep-fried shredded beef, and then simmered the crispy strips in a spicy chili sauce. He dubbed the dish “Deep fried shredded beef in chili sauce” and began serving it to patrons.
“It had that fast food flavour,” says Chef O’Flynn. “It’s kind of ingenious — George Wong was one of the first to adapt and push the boundaries in Calgary.”
Turns out, Chef Wong’s creative cooking instincts were bang on: customers gobbled up the newfangled dish, loving the zingy sauce and the beef’s crunchy texture.
“It caught on and became known as ‘Ginger Beef,'” says Karen Anderson, President of Alberta Food Tours. “Because Canadians mistakenly believed there was ginger in the sauce.”
Today, ginger beef remains a staple on The Silver Inn’s menu, and has become such an iconic dish that it was even included in the Royal Alberta Museum’s Chop Suey on the Prairies exhibition. Four decades later, there’s a growing appetite for this dish across Canada, with more chefs incorporating ginger beef onto their menus.
“To think that a dish from Calgary built in the 1970s can now be found in Victoria to Toronto to all the way Halifax is pretty fantastic,” says Chef O’Flynn. “It gained way for other Chinese restaurants to do a new style of Asian food.”
The original recipe has evolved over the years, to reflect changing tastes and ingredients. Some renditions include ginger and garlic, and it’s more common now to add sauteed onions, peppers and carrots into the mix before serving. Regardless of the fixings, the outcome is always tasty.
“The result is tender morsels of beef in a crispy coating with sweet hot sauce and brightly coloured vegetables,” says Karen Anderson. “When it’s done right, it’s out of this world delicious.”
Some daring chefs are even playing around with this Canuck favourite, creating everything from ginger beef lettuce wraps with a pita holder to ginger beef poutine to a sesame ginger beef burrito. The dish has even fueled a “Ginger Beef Throw Down,” a one-time cooking competition between food trucks that was hosted by the Royal Alberta Museum.
Of course, why go out to eat when you can make your own tasty version at home? A plate of Ginger Beef Blowout is dressed to impress — succulent slices of sirloin paired with delicate gourmet salad rolls.
For something simpler, this one-pot recipe from Chef Michael Smith produces a big batch of braised Orange Ginger Beef Stew simmered in tangy spices. For a more traditional recipe, try this easy 15-minute recipe for Ginger Beef with Carrots and Rice, deep-frying the beef until crunchy and golden.
But whether you’re eating out or at home, Chef O’Flynn has one piece of advice for ginger beef lovers everywhere:
“You must go to The Silver Inn,” he says. “You can’t have it anywhere else! Have it there first, so you know what it is, and then go and check out other renditions.”