Everybody loves Chinese food, right? Chop suey, chow mein, sweet ‘n sour chicken balls, chicken fried rice—all the staples of Chinese-Canadian cuisine to eat in or take-out. So, introducing the eggroll would be readily greeted with open mouths. You’d think.
My father, Joe Ko, wanted to acquaint his customers at the Panama Café with the eggroll. No other restaurant, Chinese or Caucasian, had put forth a new dish since WWII in Thibeault Falls. With an expanding population in a growing Northern Ontario town, people needed something new and delicious in their diets.
But the taste buds of the residents were conservative, staid, and unchallengeable. And, as my father discovered, they liked it that way.
Instead of first advertising the eggroll in the local newspaper, on billboards, or even in the daily menu, he included it, unannounced as a bonus side-dish for customers ordering fried rice or a sweet ‘n sour plate. The eggroll came with plum sauce. Something free. Something to whet the appetite and spark culinary curiosity. Something to start a gastronomic trend. Something to give the Panama Café an edge over the competition.
But the eggroll created controversy instead.
“What is this, Joe?” a regular customer asked. The new dish was untouched on the small plate. The man pushed it suspiciously with his fork. It rocked back and forth a bit, but it didn’t roll.
“What is an egg… roll?” He pushed the fork at it again.
“My new creation. Special for Thibeault Falls.”
Then he proceeded to list the ingredients: shredded BBQ pork, bean sprouts, slivered bamboo shoots, chopped water chestnut, sesame seed oil, salt and pepper, special spice, wrapped in thin pastry, and fried to crisp, golden brown. Served with plum sauce.
The man carefully cut the cylindrical eggroll in half. The smell of sesame came out with the puff of steam. He inspected its stuffed innards.
“Where’s the egg, Joe?”
My father looked blankly at the man. “Please taste. You will like it.”
“I don’t see no egg. Just strange vegetables and a bit of meat in pastry. I can’t eat that. Anyway, a roll is a baked bun, Joe. Bread. Take it away, please!”
My father was furious as he brought the dissected eggroll back to the kitchen. Then, the waitresses also returned with uneaten, mutilated eggrolls and told similar stories. This went on for the whole business day. No customer would even taste it.
My father’s dream of cashing in with the eggroll was crashing down on him. Time, effort and money had gone into this project. Now the dozens of eggrolls, ready for serving and selling, were destined for the garbage cans.
“I will be the laughing stock of the Chinese community,” he later told my mother. His pride was deeply hurt.
But my father was stubborn. He stopped including it free with the Chinese dishes. He placed the eggroll as a new Panama Café specialty. Customers now had to order it and, of course, pay for it. If you had to buy it with cash, then you would more likely eat it. That was my father’s new philosophy.
A few months earlier, we all had confidence in the eggroll to make the Café distinct from the other three Chinese-Canadian restaurants in town. But developing a new cuisine was not as easy as I thought.
Preparation is key to the making of a dish. It isn’t just the assembling of ingredients. Getting the materials proved to be a challenge. At the age of 9, I learned about infrastructure. You got to have things already in place before you can do what you want to do. And when you don’t, then you have to get or make those things first.
One of the first problems that my father had to solve was a reliable supply of bean sprouts. In the past, the cafe depended on the Ontario Northland Railway (ONR) to deliver bushels of sprouts twice a week from Toronto, some three hundred miles south. Bean sprouts were absolutely essential for chop suey and chow mein dishes, and now eggrolls. The Toronto Chinatown supplier often proved unreliable and the quality of the sprouts was inconsistent. The ONR didn’t always put the bushels in refrigerated cars, which caused them to burn during the hot summer days. In the winter, they froze.
One of the cooks, Sam Lee, suggested that we substitute bean sprouts with cabbage. This vegetable was abundant all year round. It solved the supply, extra cost and availability problems. Four heads of cabbage could make up for a bushel of sprouts. Moreover, we were familiar with this vegetable and it was much, much cheaper than bean sprouts.
My father experimented with sliced cabbage. He, my mother and the cooks tasted this version. This vegetable lacked texture and choppiness, and when cooked it made the eggroll unintentionally sweet to the palate. The eggroll smelled of boiled cabbage.
“We grow the sprouts ourselves,” my mother suggested, “in the basement here.”
Growing the mung beans ourselves meant that we had to acquire the hardware and material such as vats, troughs, water barrels, and so on. An entire hydroponic system was needed. In short, start-up was going to cost money. Plumbers, electricians, and carpenters were brought in to make the physical “plant.”
Then we had to have someone to look after the production; the little green beans had to be germinated, transferred into large vats, watered every four hours at an even temperature, and finally in three or four days when the sprouts are plump and about two inches, they’re harvested and cleaned of the soft, green husk. The shelf life of bean sprouts was short.
Since my mother came up with the idea, my father gave the job of looking after the production of bean sprouts to her. She was responsible for watering the vats regularly. She would have to wake up at four in the morning to complete the task. This added duty became part of her routine. Often on the weekends, I had to take over watering the sprouts.
Then there was the making of the eggrolls. It was an assembly line production. One person would lay out the six-inch square pastry in rows, another would brush the four ends with egg wash while someone else would put in the ingredients and then roll the ensemble together, pinching the ends tightly. A cook would fry them in the deep fryer until golden brown, let them cool on racks and stack them six high in containers in the fridge.
Then there was the separate preparation for the plum sauce. My father set the price of an eggroll with plum sauce at 15 cents.
My father also set his sights on a crème de la crème eggroll with shrimp for 25 cents. But with the initial disappointment, the grander scheme was shelved, perhaps forever. Even this version of the Chinese dish was in doubt.
“Hey, Hardy,” a school mate shouted out in the playground. “Heard your father tried to put one over us. Eggroll without an egg!”
At first, I thought this was just regular heckling I get at school. I was the only Chinese kid at Queen Victoria Public School. I got a lot of that kind of thing in class and in the playground. Being different needed a tough skin.
When I got home after school, everybody in the Panama Café was in an uproar. My father’s face was full of anger. And it all had to do with the eggroll.
“We are being investigated!” my father announced. “The health department and the licensing board. Might have to hire a lawyer!”
My father then explained to me that in the past, various city officials all over Canada tried to shut down Chinese restaurants with every excuse under the sun. By-laws were enacted to protect “Canadian” cafés, grills, and eateries from the encroaching Orientals. White women were not allowed to work in Chinese restaurants because it was considered demeaning to have a Chinaman as boss. This was the law until the mid-40s.
“But this is 1958!” I exclaimed. And every lo wah kew—old Chinese sojourner—laughed. Sam Lee, the oldest cook, shook his head at me.
A few Thibeault Falls citizens—one as we later learned—had complained to the municipal licensing board that the Panama Café was guilty of “misrepresentation” in its food. The restaurant made a dish that had none of the ingredients that it was named for. Customers could be cheated of their money. This deception could even cause someone digesting it to be made ill. The eggroll had to be stopped now before it became an insidious epidemic in the Chinese restaurant industry.
The Ladies’ Auxiliary of Thibeault Falls got into the act. They thought heathen food was against their religious beliefs and diet. “Who knows what they really put in to that thing they call an eggroll. What will they disguise next on the menu?”
Two inspectors from the health department and one from the municipal business licensing board showed up. Besides pages of official forms, the inspectors carried sampling kits to take back for examination. My father went through the preparation and cooking process of the eggroll. He had my mother make a fresh batch for show. He personally fried them. He offered them to the three officials to taste. They all hesitated. They looked at one another, daring one to break down and be the guinea pig.
Then, one official broke the awkward moment, and said, “What the hell. Looks okay. No ingredients I can’t identify. Gimme one, Joe.”
“I don’t know, Pat.” The other inspector cautioned. “I’d worry about my stomach.”
“Really! You saw how it was made.”
Pat shamed the other two into trying the eggrolls. They waited, of course, until he had finished and wiped the dribble of plum sauce from his mouth.
“It’s like a really small portion of pork chop suey in pastry. Fried in fat instead of cooked in a wok,” he commented.
“So you are not going to close down my restaurant?”
“No, Joe. But we suggest you call this egg roll by another name.”
My father was relieved. Later, he told my mother that he was glad that these inspectors did not ask what was in the plum sauce. Because there were no plums in it at all. It was made of stewed dry apricots, sugar, vinegar, water, and hot chili peppers.
Now he had to come up with a new name for the eggroll. He played with a number of food related, Chinese-like terms: deep-fried Chinese wrap, Oriental fried dumpling, Panama Café stuffed surprise, baby chop suey roll—this last moniker was quickly rejected because someone might take the word “baby” in a cannibalistic way, far worse than saying there was an egg in the roll. One of the white waitresses told him that.
My father was in a quandary.
The Thibeault Falls Reporter caught wind of the inspection. Someone had tipped off the newspaper. On page 3, there was a full colour photo of the naked eggroll. No plum sauce, though.
The outcome of the local newspaper’s item was that it sealed the fate of the eggroll. It saved my father from sleepless nights thinking up of names. The Thibeault Falls Reporter had officially identified the dish “eggroll” and it stuck.
Still the publicity did create a lively debate over the naming of food. Take, for example, the hot dog. This staple at sports stadiums, fair grounds, picnics, street vendors and many households was, and still is, an elongated bun with a reheated wiener, topped with condiments. The wiener itself is made of beef or pork lung, brain, tongue and innards, ground up, cooked and stuffed in intestines of sheep. For generations, people all over Canada and the United States eat it with relish.
I remember when we first came over to gum san, Canada, my mother commented when she was told about the favourite and famous hot dog, “Fan gwei, the white devils, eat dogs too.”
At school, Miss Andrews took the opportunity in social studies to talk about this misnaming of food we eat and take for granted. She also confessed that she had eaten an eggroll from the Panama Café.
“Class, did you know that hamburgers do not have ham or any pork meat in it? It was named after a German town called Hamburg. Immigrants brought it over. And after a while, ground beef in a grilled patty came to be known as a hamburger.”
“Like chop suey,” I said. “A Chinese invention.”
“Sorry, Hardy,” the teacher corrected. “It is a North American creation. During the gold rush in California, someone mixed leftover vegetables and meat together and called it chop suey. The phrase isn’t even Chinese, only sounds it.”
My father told me the eggroll was all Chinese, all the way from the Middle Kingdom, when he learned of it in Toronto. It had Chinese ingredients in it. Were we really trying to fool the fan gwei?
The local radio station asked its teenaged audience about the eggroll, this Asian delicacy. “Can anyone tell what’s in an eggroll? Is it a current fad like the hula-hoop or yo-yo?” The DJ dared any listener to come to the station, eat thirteen eggrolls—with plum sauce—and be rewarded with two free tickets to a rock-and-roll show in Buffalo, USA. The response was overwhelming.
“Free advertising,” my father beamed.
In truth, he had to give the radio station dozens of eggrolls. For the free advertising, of course. But it worked. People became curious about this “eggroll” that you can eat from a plate or just from holding it in your hand.
Soon customers came to the restaurant, bought and ate the eggroll. My father observed that it was the younger “beat” generation, the hot rod enthusiasts, rock ‘n rollers who took to the eggroll as much as they did to the perennial Coke ‘n fries with gravy. His outlook brightened a bit. His older customers—the liver and onions with mashed potatoes and ketchup group—were still skeptical, suspicious and, reluctant.
Soon the other Chinese restaurants in town were offering their versions of the eggroll. They used pumpkin in the plum sauce and substituted bean sprouts with cabbage. My father guarded the secret ingredients to the eggroll and plum sauce, and swore us to secrecy and silence. In the meanwhile, we were growing bean sprouts, making eggrolls, and selling them like hot cakes.
With this eggroll success, my father declared another culinary venture for the Panama Café and for the diners of Thibeault Falls:
Garry Engkent is a Chinese-Canadian who immigrated to gum san in 1953. He has a Ph.D. and taught at various universities and colleges. He has co-authored three texts: Groundwork: Writing Skills to Build On, Fiction/Non-Fiction: A Reader and Rhetoric, and Essay: Do’s and Don’ts.
His stories have appeared in Exile, Alberta Magazine, Many-Mouthed Birds, SELS Review etc. Most of the stories have a Chinese immigrant slant, circa 1950-70s: “Why My Mother Can’t Speak English,” “Chickens for Christmas,” “Visiting,” “Ten Questions and a Slice of Boston Cream Pie,” and “Mother Came to Visit and Stayed.” His story “The Bear and I” was published in Ricepaper recently.