Edmonton Alberta is home to a number of wonderful restaurants, a massive farmers market and food trucks from which to find a delicious meal. But when in Edmonton, the provincial capitol of Alberta, THE food you must eat is green onion cakes. And THE place to eat it is home of the Green Onion Cake Man.
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The Green Onion Cake Man is Siu To, but no one calls him that. Born in Qingdao in northern China, he immigrated to Hong Kong at 15 years old. In 1978, after visiting his brother who had immigrated to Edmonton, Siu decided Edmonton was a great place to raise a family.
If you’ve ever been to Hong Kong, you know it’s crowded and expensive. Siu fell in love with the wide open spaces of Edmonton and the affordable opportunities he saw for a better life.
The day we met Siu, his gray hair was tinted a greenish-blue, a short term souvenir from the most recent visit by his grandchildren. When I was a child, I would tie pink ribbons in my grandpa’s gray hair, so I get it. And this is a good look for a man known for green onions, so we think he should keep it.
What is a Green Onion Cake?
We had never heard of green onion cakes before visiting Edmonton. Since then, we’ve found one Chinese restaurant near us that serves them, but you won’t commonly find green onion cakes on menus featuring Chinese cuisine. According to Siu, that’s because they are quite time consuming to make and not as profitable as other dishes.
Siu learned to make them as a child in his mother’s kitchen. Since then, they have always been one of his favorite foods. So, when he opened his first restaurant in Edmonton, green onion cakes were on the menu.
Technically, they are not a cake, but Siu says it was the only English word he knew that was closest to the Chinese word. It looks similar to a pancake and it’s grilled in light oil like a pancake. But the dough is much more biscuit like. However, it’s not a biscuit either. When making them by hand, Siu says the dough “must be soft like your cheek.” He patted my cheek as he talked. And the heat must remain low.
This is a video he and his son put together to explain the process.
Becoming a Culinary Sensation in Edmonton
Not long after settling in Edmonton, Siu’s and his wife opened a restaurant, which provided well for their family. However, sometime in the 1980s, for the 10 day Taste of Edmonton Festival, they decided to open a little food stand and sell nothing but green onion cakes. They worked for weeks ahead of time making and freezing the little cakes. For 10 days, the line outside of their little booth was the longest of any at the festival.
Siu told me that when it was all over, they were exhausted but had he wanted to, he could have paid cash for a brand new Mercedes. Instead, he invested back in the restaurant and put money aside for his kids’ college education.
There’s not a festival in the city now that does not feature his green onion cakes. He’s also a popular presence at the weekly farmers market downtown. On a typical day in his restaurant, he sells about 600 green onion cakes at the bargain price of 2 or $5.
So what do they taste like: They are kind of flaky with just a bit of sweetness combined with the tingy bite of green onion. I put just a tad bit of plum sauce and mine and really liked it that way. Overall, we loved them!
Tip: For a wonderful hotel experience while in Edmonton, check out the Union Bank Inn.
Green Onion Cake Copy Cats
As with any great success, soon other Edmonton restaurants were offering green onion cakes on their menu. While Siu recognizes the need to make the cakes ahead of time, he does not cook them until guests come in the door. It takes just two or three minutes to fry them on the griddle.
But Siu has noticed many of his competitors go ahead and fry them, and then re-heat them as customer flow demands. A serious green onion cake gourmand will know the difference.
We were told a movement is underway to make green onion cakes the official food of Edmonton Alberta. If there’s a petition to sign, let us know. We are now big fans of green onion cakes and the Green Onion Cake Man of Edmonton Alberta.
Tip: For another story about how a Chinese immigrant changed the way a city eats, let’s visit Springfield, Missouri.