A middle-aged businessman sat alone in a maroon booth at a linen-swathed table in an upscale Chinese restaurant. A plate mounded with glistening morsels of chicken was placed before him. As he literally rubbed his palms in anticipation, he asked his Mandarin-jacketed waiter for chopsticks, and then, upon his return, a knife. “I love this sauce!” he exclaimed, almost to himself, but loud enough that, seated nearby, we could measure his enthusiasm. “It’s not sickly sweet like the General Tao’s everywhere else.” The waiter nodded the nod of a man who had been through this before.
The cloth napkin the businessman had tucked like a bib over his crisp pink dress shirt only added to the picture of his boyish enthusiasm for the food. It was as if every bite of chopstick-held chicken was a trip back to the high school bleachers when he finally got to third base with his first sweetheart. “They basically invented Szechuan in this city, you know?!” he half-shouted over to me. This city being Montreal, where I was sitting at L'Orchidée de Chine on Peel Street awaiting my own meal, a meal I knew was unique to this place.
In the 1960s, Ruby Foo's opened on Decarie Boulevard. The pulsing neon sign promising Chinese and Western dishes helped usher in an era of high-end Chinese food, where the restaurant’s commander would serve Pierre Eliot Trudeau cunard a l’orange tableside. Likeminded spots followed, including Piment Rouge, Le Chrysanthème, Zen, and a handful of others. The upscale food and service was the perfect pairing for Montreal’s old school business elite (read: Jewish schmata business owners). It was an acceptable interpretation of the down and dirty Chinese food they had grown up on and craved. Historically, Jews and Chinese had lived in close proximity in the denser North American urban centres (frequently due to the timing of their immigration waves), whether it be Manhattan’s Lower East Side or Toronto’s Kensington Market. And unlike many other ethnic immigrants at the turn of the last century, Chinese restaurateurs for the most part weren’t anti-Semitic so their restaurants gave Jews a sense of security. And exoticism. What’s more, Chinese food didn’t mix milk with meat (adding a faux kosher appeal), and remaining open on Christmas cemented this special cross-cultural relationship.
All of which played a role in Montreal’s Jewish dining crowd liking their Chinese through the ‘60s and ‘70s. But then in the 1980s, a new style of highbrow Chinese arrived in Montreal. It riffed on the dishes Montrealers yearned for, but was sweeter, crisper, and made from a higher quality of ingredients, all dressed up in a bow tie and a toque for a thriving local audience. With glamorous décor, white-gloved waiters, French wines and exquisite (if not wholly authentic) Far East classics, it neatly paired with the changing nature of a clientele who were part of a rapidly changing Canada. The food was tailor made for a country waking up to the diversity of the world. Oh yeah, and it was delicious.
Which is what the guests at L'Orchidée de Chine had come for the day I was there. It was a cold day, but the sharp blue Montreal winter sky warmed the room through the windows, as elegantly coiffed women handed over furs for careful hanging. The restaurant is set in two stories with a curvaceous staircase winding up from the sun-drenched entrance. Many customers are seated on the main floor by the windows, while upstairs in an almost morosely dark room you’ll hear soft mid-tempo jazz. By 12:30 pm every table, vinyl banquette and vaguely Chinese red upholstered high-back was occupied by suave, greying business types wearing designer glasses. Brother and sister co-owners, George and Eva Lau, greeted them all like old friends.
“The restaurant has been here since 1984,” Eva Lau told me when she sat down at my banquette. “The idea was, we’d seen too many Americanized Chinese restaurants serving Cantonese. We thought that needed to change because it had always just been Cantonese Chinese in North America.” They decided to bring in a different cuisine. Different from mid-20th century Canadian Chinese food, that is, the stuff everyone was already accustomed to—blistered fat eggrolls, deep-fried chicken balls in neon orange sauce, and chop suey (the original cultural mash-up.) The cuisine the Laus had in mind was the fiery, bold notes of Szechuan. “But of course not authentic Szechuan because we had to make it a little different for the local tastes,” she explained. The idea was to offer an alternative to the family-run ‘Chinese and Western’ institutions dotting Canada’s railway towns.
The regulars at L'Orchidée de Chine may not be Chinese, but this is most definitely their food, created for them to suit the tastes of the new Canada that was emerging in the late Trudeau years, when multiculturalism and broader immigration were welcoming assorted cultures (and their cuisines). Trudeau’s vision of the country encouraged newcomers to stay true to their roots instead of blending in to an American-style melting pot. Thinking about all this while talking to Eva Lau made me wonder about the nature of authenticity and whether authentic necessarily means better. If we bastardize another’s dishes is it cultural misappropriation, an homage, or simply smart business? Montrealers in the mid-80s, after all, were embracing the cultures of the world, but they were still shaping them to suit their tastes. Tradition is important, but not so much if old Saul fries his tongue on Sichuan peppercorns.
Reading all this deftly, the Laus set out to embrace the inauthentic, instructing their chefs to make their Szechuan Montreal friendly (a hint sweeter and a touch less spicy), while at the same time creating a dining experience that had a look and feel that suited their heady 1980s roster of regulars, including local politicians and visiting stars like Marlon Brando, Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman. (A tradition that continues: Hugh Jackman recently popped by for take-out.) Their target market was Montrealers, so instead of fish being presented with the head and tail intact (a sign of freshness in China) and the tastier dark meat being spun into chicken dishes, the Laus served fish in filets and used only white breast meat. Shrimp would never be served in their shells. Lost in translation from Szechuan to Montreal were the juiciness of dark meat and the licking of fingers after peeling shrimp shells, but this was not bastardization, just adaptation.
“And we decided to do French service,” Lau told me, highlighting another touch they thought Montrealers would warm to. This meant waiters divided dishes from the serving plate for the customer instead of putting the dishes in the middle of the table for diners to serve themselves family style. Napkins are expertly folded into exotic fans. There are votive candles on the tables, a perfect clipped fresh orchid lazily floating in each. “We wanted to give a proper service, introduce a new idea of Chinese dining in Montreal.” On the menu it’s not even called Szechuan. It’s “Setzchwan” – three layers removed from the original spelling, and an overt declaration that this is Szechuan westernized just so, created with purpose, but without malice.
My lunch guest, Sarah Musgrave, the executive editor for enRoute magazine, joined me and we placed our order. Lau recommended their most popular dishes, including the silky pork-stuffed dumplings bathed in a mildly piquant peanut sauce, mini ribs that end up tasting just like porky garlic caramel, black pepper chicken tossed with flash-fried spinach, and crunchy orange beef. Musgrave, a former restaurant critic, figures the place is all about nostalgia. In China, she says, Szechuan is the most popular cuisine. It’s known for its variety of spices and notes that hit on flowery, bitter, sour, sweet and smoky. It’s a cuisine with depth and complexity, though in North America it’s been unfairly pigeonholed as a chili and pepper gun show. Kung Pao Chicken and Ma Po Tofu are two of the more famous dishes. “This is all really just a re-imagining of what Montreal would want from Szechuan culture,” said Musgrave through a mouthful. It’s crunchy, tangy, garlicky, delicious and more soothingly sweet than hellaciously spiced.
Indeed, the incredibly tasty plate of Setzchwan in front of me might have been the most authentically inauthentic food I’d ever tasted, but that did not make it a lesser-than hybrid. Rather, I saw it as a local interpretation of a foreign cuisine, something altered but perhaps better for it, in the same way some theatre companies might mount Hamlet set in modern times to make it easier for us to see through to the play’s human depths. As Musgrave noted, the food on our plate wasn’t Szechuan. It was a Montreal portal delivering us to the idea of Szechuan.
I had been to China a few months earlier, and there is no doubt—this was not that. In Quanzhou, in Fujian Provence, a lunch buffet can be a mind-bending journey into oil-baked clams, braised river eel, and sandworm jelly. Woe is the tourist who thinks she’s pushing the cappuccino button on the coffee machine. Out dribbles purple sweet taro juice, instead. Taking the bullet train further into the mountains, from Fuzhou to Wuyishanbei, I was soon seated at an al fresco restaurant situated over a river with a working bamboo water wheel, the table strewn with five-spice chicken, cucumber with jellyfish, spicy snails, whole smoked duck, and tofu so fresh it was still draining through the cheesecloth into its wooden box. Every bite had a sense of place. From village to town to city, I did not eat the same dish twice in China, which begs the question: How do you define ‘authentic’ Szechuan in Canada when the palate moves a thousand different directions even in Szechuan, China? Is authenticity just a state of mind, a needless construct? Why would or should I expect to find Wuyishanbei jellyfish in downtown Montreal, and would I even want to eat it if I wasn’t sitting beside a bamboo waterwheel on a dewy afternoon?
A few years ago I participated in a matzo ball competition at a local deli in Toronto. I make delicious matzo balls—this is a fact not open to interpretation. David Sax, the noted culture writer and author of Save the Deli and The Tastemakers, was a judge at the blind tasting. Sax approached me immediately following my loss, and without officially knowing which balls were mine, he’d nevertheless pegged my herb-flecked losers. “Fresh dill in the matzo balls, xxxx? You know you can’t do that.”
But I wondered then and wonder still who gets to define the definitive version of a dish? Were my matzo balls not fluffy and flavourful? Or were they the Kung Pao Chicken interlopers of the kneidlach world? Was I being culturally insensitive to my own people? The rest of the matzo balls were a variation on the same prosaic yet authentic theme and one of them was deemed the winner. Which helps explain why Ashkenazi food has three basic dishes in its repertoire (matzo ball soup, brisket, and kugel, in case you were wondering). Some things are apparently meant to stay the same. Forever. Does that make them authentic? Or fossilized? I recently followed up with Sax on some of these questions. “I was wrong about the matzo balls,” he courageously admitted. “They should not follow any script.”
Which brings us back to Montreal’s Setzchwan. Lesley Chesterman, a food writer and the longtime restaurant critic for the Montreal Gazette, remembers being in her teens when people suddenly started talking about a new place called Le Piment Rouge. “At dinner parties they would say, “Have you been? It’s sayz-CHUAN.”” The restaurant had a decades-long run but closed a few years back. However, the original owner Hazel Mah re-launched Piment 2 in 2016 in Old Montreal. A new interpretation for a new generation. The soaring space is bright and pretty with concrete floors strewn with Persian rugs. Hanging lamps and lanterns swing from the 20-ft ceilings. The restaurant is busy with a casual vibe, and the same can be said for the food. I dined there with a large group of friends, and as we sat shoulder-to-shoulder at square wooden tables, we ordered Hunan Dumplings, pan-fried garlic chive dumplings, spring rolls, spare ribs, lemon chicken, General Tao, crispy sesame beef. The meal was good, but it was more Canadian Chinese than the Montreal Setzchwan I had been hoping for. It wasn’t authentically inauthentic enough. It didn’t have the conviction of L'Orchidée de Chine’s willingness to go full Setzchuan.
The Laus at L'Orchidée de Chine were serving elevated Chinese food when no one else was, at a time when Canada was opening itself up to the world. Of course, being Canadian we still had to moderate things somewhat. In any case, not only is it impossible to fully transport the authentic (as bits of it inevitably evaporate in the vapor trails over the Pacific), but it’s not fully desirable. If something is changing, that means it’s alive.
You go to L'Orchidée de Chine because you don’t want authentic Szechuan. You go because you want made-to-order dumplings and not-too-spicy orange beef and sweeter-and-milder-than-anything-you’d-ever-find-in-China General Tao chicken. You want authentic Setzchwan, because when it comes to General Tao with its white breast meat, its inauthenticity is what makes it worth having.
That, and the sauce.