A few weeks ago, I started experimenting with easy Americanized Chinese food—chop suey and chow mein. Here’s another tasty stir fry—lo mein.
By the time I arrived in Toronto in 1966, much of the city’s historic Chinatown had been demolished to make way for Viljo Revell’s new City Hall, which had opened the year before. A few Chinese restaurants remained on what was left of Elizabeth Street to the north and along Dundas Street West. I’d been introduced to Chinese food in London, so I quickly made my way there and on the advice of newfound friends, ate regularly at the largest and most Westernized of them. I remember the Lichee Garden, which had a band, a dance floor and was open until late. Take out food had arrived by then, but not home delivery, so if we wanted to order out, we would send a taxi to pick the food up and the driver would just add the bill to the fare.
My favourite was Sai Woo, where the owner Chin Shee Ping, know to all as Norman, would greet me by name. Some of Norman’s family worked with him in the restaurant and one of his sons told me how they would enjoy midnight feasts of excess food brought home from Sai Woo. It played host to so many wedding receptions that he told me as a young boy he thought this was how everyone lived, having grand feasts every few weeks. Sadly, the restaurant closed in 2000 when Norman retired.
During my career as a television director, I worked with noted Canadian author and broadcaster Pierre Berton and his colleague Elsa Franklin. Pierre liked Chinese food and Elsa took me to Sai Woo for our first meeting. Later I directed Heritage Theatre, their TV series based on Pierre’s books. Elsa asked me to help out with the annual Writers’ Trust fundraising event in support of the Berton House Writers’ Retreat. Pierre was one of the founders of the Trust and had donated his childhood home in Dawson City, Yukon, for the retreat. He insisted the event be held in a Chinese restaurant, as he felt they were the only ones who could serve an eight-course dinner to the hundreds of attendees, for a decent price. At one dinner, Pierre auctioned off his famous buckskin jacket. By the time of the auction, I had imbibed quite a lot of alcohol and not much food (as I was running around organizing things). For some reason I decided to bid on the jacket. I believe my intent was to bid the price up high, but to my dismay the bidding suddenly stopped and I found myself the owner of the jacket, and several thousand dollars poorer. No matter, I donated it to the proposed Pierre Berton Discovery Centre after his death and got a decent tax receipt. I only wore it a few times, as Pierre was a larger and taller man than I. Nor did I have it cleaned, so it has his authentic fountain pen ink in the inside pocket and his genuine blood on the sleeve from an axe cut.
By the eighties, I had moved to the suburbs to start a family, and Chinatown had become more and more rundown. Elsa and I occasionally ventured out to one of the authentic little venues she had the knack of discovering, usually on Spadina Avenue and in the Kensington Market area, where many of the original establishments had relocated.
My late father-in-law David Scott-Atkinson discovered the Pearl Harbourfront restaurant in the Queen’s Quay Terminal, which welcomed young children, and had fabulous dim sum delivered on trolleys, so the kids could see and pick what they fancied. My now grown-up daughter Megan brought him to lunch there in 2004, shortly before he died. The Pearl has many memories for me plus a fabulous view of the harbour where I can look over to the Toronto Islands, where my former sail boat still floats. The Pearl is where I shall rush when the current lockdown ends.
Those are the highs and lows of my experiences with Chinese food, which brings me back to lo mein, which simply means stirred noodles.
CHICKEN AND TOFU LO MEIN
- 1 cup cubed chicken breast
- 1 cup firm tofu cubes
- 2 cups dry noodles
- ¼ cup celery, washed and chopped
- ½ onion, peeled and sliced
- ½ broccoli head, broken into florets, stems removed
- ½ cup mushrooms, cleaned, de-stalked and sliced
- 2 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
- 1 piece ginger, peeled and sliced
- 4 TBSP canola (rape seed) oil
- ¼ cup chicken or vegetable stock
- 2 TBSP lemon juice (or ½ fresh lemon)
- 2 TBSP soy sauce
- 1 tsp rice wine vinegar
- 1 TBSP cornstarch
- 2 green onions, sliced
- 2 TBSP water chestnuts, sliced
- 2 TBSP fresh parsley, washed and chopped
- Salt and pepper
Preparation and cooking
- Cook the noodles in a saucepan of salted boiling water, about 4 to 7 mins, timed to be ready when the stir fry is cooked. Drain in a colander and leave over the hot pan to retain warmth.
- Prepare the chicken breast: remove skin and bone and cut into bite sized cubes. Cut across the grain to improve tenderness. Prepare the tofu: drain fresh tofu and pat dry with a kitchen towel, chop into bite sized cubes.
- Prepare the vegetables: remove the stalk from the head of broccoli and break or cut into florets; peel and slice the onion very finely and break into segments, wash the mushrooms, cut off the end of the stalk and quarter or slice depending on the size of the mushrooms into bite sized pieces. Prepare the aromatics: peel the garlic cloves and slice very thinly; peel a piece of ginger about the size of a finger and slice into thin rounds. TIP: use a mandolin for the best result. Prepare the sauce: mix the soy and vinegar and whisk in the cornflour. Prepare the garnishes: slice the green onions, discarding the outer layer, top and roots. Canned water chestnuts often come pre-sliced, drain. Wash and chop the parsey, discarding any stalks.
- Add oil to the wok on medium-high heat and cook the chicken and tofu until golden. It doesn’t have to be cooked all the way through, since it will be added back into the wok for a final toss. TIP: Use a tossing motion to coat the pieces thoroughly and ensure they are cooked all around. Remove with a spatula and set aside, draining the oil back into the wok.
- Now add the aromatics and fry briefly, before adding all the veggies. Toss well together and stir fry until they are cooked but still crunchy. If the vegetables are still too crunchy, add a splash of stock, lower the heat, add a large lid and steam for a couple of minutes.
- With the heat on high, add the chicken and tofu back in and toss until well mixed. Now make a hole in the middle of the ingredients and pour in the sauce. TIP: Give the sauce a last minute whisk to ensure the cornstarch hasn’t settled to the bottom. The heat will activate the cornstarch, which acts as a thickener, and the sauce will start to darken and bubble. Give the stir fry one final toss to make sure everything is covered with sauce and remove from the heat. Sprinkle on some lemon juice or squeeze half a fresh lemon over the top. Check for seasoning and add salt and pepper as needed.
- Plate a portion of warm cooked noodles in a bowl or plate. Add a generous helping of the stir fry. Garnish freely and decoratively. Put a bowl of hot sauce on the side for your guests to add.
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Categories: Simply food
Wasn’t sure if that was Davy Crockett, but in that there was no coon skin hat I decided it wasn’t. Pierre Trudeau on steroids perhaps? Very soigné nevertheless Nigel! Cheers! Jim
This is actually a gag photo. After I had told the story of how I gained Pierre’s jacket (Berton that is, not Trudeau) we were on a photo shoot and the make up artist (the wonderful Elana Safronsky, married to the equally talented photographer Per Kristiansen) persuaded me to let her make me up as that happy drunk! The image has followed me ever since and people assume I really look like that when OP (officially pissed)!
Great tale of the jacket and your discovery of Chinese food in Toronto.