The Legacy of the Cumberland Chow Mein

May 31, 2013 at 2:58 am

by Russell Sakauye

It is my own observation that the most common type of cuisine in Toronto and the surrounding regions is of the Asian variety, mainly Chinese or Japanese. To the majority of Japanese Canadians from Toronto, I am sure that many family and community gatherings have traditionally taken place in a Chinese restaurant or buffet for as long as you can remember. There is a historic reason for this, dating as far back as the first Japanese immigrants who settled in British Columbia starting in 1877.

In Meiji-era Japan, the end of the Boshin War (1868-1869) and the final samurai rebellion known as the Satsuma Rebellion (1877), which inspired the plot for the 2003 fiction-film The Last Samurai, marked the end of feudalism. As a result, many Japanese who became impoverished searched for other opportunities in the new world—British Columbia being one of them.

The Chinese began immigrating to British Columbia during the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush of 1858, nineteen years before the first recorded Japanese, Manzo Nagano, who arrived to Canada in 1877. Both immigrant group suffered racial discrimination and subjugation for many decades.

The other day, I had the chance to ask the unofficial family historian and my maternal grandmother, Mae Ogaki, “Where did Cumberland Chow Mein come from?” In doing so, I was unknowingly sent down a very interesting path through Japanese and Chinese Canadian culinary and cultural history.

The popular Japanese Canadian dish, Cumberland Chow Mein, is one of my absolute favourite dishes to eat at family gatherings. My grandpa, Buzz Ogaki, would always take pride in his dish being the most popular offering at the gathering. Although there are many variations and ways to cook Cumberland Chow Mein today, grandpa Buzz’s dish would have delicious pan-fried Wing’s Yet-Ca-Mein noodles topped with freshly chopped mushroom, white onion and celery. Please keep in mind; this is not a vegan dish, as the noodles are made from egg white and flour. Normally, I would put shoyu on my noodles and shovel it into my mouth while hardly taking time to breathe, as they are that good!

Now let us turn our minds and stomachs back to Cumberland, British Columbia.

The small coal mining town of Cumberland—name changed from Union in 1898—was the home to a population of the fifth largest Chinese population in BC as well as home to three Japanese settlements. The Japanese #1 town site was also located next to Cumberland’s Chinatown. At some point between 1898 and 1941, a Chinese gentleman who owned a restaurant in Chinatown taught my great-grandmother, Maki Ogaki, and other Japanese women how to cook chow mein in his restaurant’s kitchen.

Because the coal mining town had limited ingredients, this was an ideal dish to make because it could be made with things that were grown in the garden, while the noodles could be made from flour and eggs. This noodle recipe was especially important to efficiently feed my great-grandmother’s family that included my grandfather and eight brothers.

With the outbreak of World War II and the Japanese Canadian internment, my grandfather and his brothers were sent to a labour lumber camp while my great-grandmother was sent to Tashme internment camp with other Nikkei women and children. As a result, the local recipe of Cumberland Chow Mein became a staple comfort food when my grandfather, his brothers, their mother and fellow Cumberlandians shared this invaluable recipe amongst their fellow Japanese Canadians since there were limited ingredients available to them in the camps.

Immediately after the end of the internment, most restaurants in Canada would not serve Japanese people. According to my grandmother, there was only one restaurant in Toronto during the late to early 50s that served Japanese people; that restaurant was called International. This Chinese restaurant, now called Dim Sum King Seafood, was located on the newly relocated Chinatown (Dundas Street West, East of Spadina Avenue). As a result, Chinese restaurants became the favourite place to hold Japanese Canadian wedding receptions in the City and may have greatly contributed to the burgeoning success of Toronto Chinese cuisine. Please realize that the majority of “non-ethnic” Torontonians at this time were not interested in “exotic” cuisine.

Perhaps it was the commonly-shared trauma of racial discrimination that brought the Japanese and Chinese Canadian communities together, and no doubt the similarity in our cuisine. But if you think about it, there’s a good chance that the love affair of Chinese cuisine within the Japanese Canadian community started in a small kitchen inside a small Chinese restaurant located in the smallest and western-most town in British Columbia more than one-hundred years ago. Funny how a simple act of kindness can lead to a culinary legacy, eh?

Russell Sakauye is currently an independent documentary film producer, photographer, video artist and a full-time foodie living in Toronto.