How the owners of four Asian eateries in Halifax built strong cultural connections through food

Sharing food with others is surely one of the best things in life. From late-night pizza with friends to a gourmet meal with your lover, to a backyard barbecue with your family, to a tasting menu at an amazing new restaurant, we draw so much pleasure from the act of eating and the company we keep when we do. We often get our first glimpse into a new culture through our palates, and Halifax is an excellent city for doing that. Through our international festivals and an increasing number of ethnic food restaurants, we can experience so many different cultures, which is always a great thing.

The newcomers to Canada who open up food businesses take a risk by introducing something new, but we are a receptive bunch and many of these initiatives thrive in our farmers’ markets and in stand-alone restaurants. When people come from other countries and serve up their home foods to us, it shows us who they are, and allows them to reach us in the most satisfying of ways, through our stomachs, and opens the door to a deeper connection.

Here’s how four Halifax food businesses have made that connection, and a living, by bringing their food and cultures to our city.

Lei Jiang

Suzuki Restaurant: The Food-Heart Connection

When Lei Jiang moved to Halifax from China in 2010 to study accounting, his first experience of Canadian food was a plate of wings at Your Father’s Moustache. “It was very good, it was cheap and there was lots of food,” he says. He was feeling alone, so far away from family and home, but going out to eat with his university friends helped soothe that.

This past January, Jiang took over ownership of Suzuki Restaurant on Dresden Row. He loves to see how people come together there to enjoy the Japanese food that his team lovingly produces and serves. “When customers come here and they’re laughing and talking loudly, having a good time, I feel so comfortable and that what we do is appreciated,” he says.

“It’s more than just food, they come for the experience too,” Jiang explains. “We make and serve Japanese food in the traditional way. The rice for the sushi is made to order, and everything is authentic.” (Being Chinese, Jiang says he isn’t the sushi expert — his chef and staff handle that side of things. Go to his house for dinner, though, and he’ll whip up the best sweet soy sauce pork you’ve ever tasted.)

Suzuki is cool in its authenticity, with booths made secret by traditional curtains and zashiki seating on the floor. The restaurant has been at the same location in Halifax for 20 years (though it was called Doraku before changing to Suzuki), and has lots of loyal customers. “And we are all like family here,” Jiang says. “Being here is so fun that it never feels like work, just hanging out with friends.”

Steven and Pi-Yen Chen

Chenpapa: Finding Home Through Food

When Steven and Pi-Yen Chen moved to Spryfield from Taiwan in 1977, they spoke no English and there were few work opportunities for them. Despite the fact they weren’t really that into cooking, they started selling Chinese food, first at a food court in Halifax, and then at the farmers’ market, where they have been vendors for more than 30 years. They sold Canadianized Chinese food and tofu, and introduced it to many people here.

The Chens’ daughter Pay, now a television and radio host living in Toronto, remembers people walking by her parents’ table at the market and pausing to look at food that was unfamiliar to them. “My parents would always convert people by getting them to try a bite. I like to think that my parents introduced a lot of people in Nova Scotia to a new flavour or food they’ve never had before,” she says.

Over the years, the Chens built up a loyal following of regular customers and built relationships with people through their food. “Even though the farmers’ market has changed locations and it’s decades later, they still get regular customers who come by to buy something to take home and to catch up,” says Pay. “They have customers who used to be kids that went to the market with their parents and now bring their own children to visit.”

Through their food, the Chens built relationships that go beyond just exchanging pleasantries with their customers. “Their home is full of gifts from long-time customers — paintings, artwork, pottery, homemade jams, little tokens of appreciation. I am always amazed that customers bring them Christmas gifts. How many people visit the same coffee shop every week and would think to bring your server a Christmas gift and card?” says Pay. “We celebrated my dad’s 75th birthday at the farmers’ market with a big slab cake for customers who dropped off cards and small gifts. I have always loved how much people in Nova Scotia have welcomed my family and been open to trying the food they make.”

Unique Asian Catering: Fast Food, Fast Friends

If you’re a Seaport Farmers’ Market regular, you already know Unique Asian Catering by the scent of their delicious Indian food even if you’ve never actually bought one of their samosas. The business was started by Ruhul Amin and his wife more than 20 years ago, and the lineups for their food have always been long but worthwhile.

Amin’s Halifax story started before his wife was able to follow him to Canada. He left Bangladesh in 1990 to secure a better life for her and their two children, but he had to make enough money to sponsor them to join him. Those first years here were hard, but Amin made friends through potlucks with his ESL class and later by cooking for others.

When Amin was finally able to bring his family to Halifax in 1995, he and his wife started making samosas out of their apartment kitchen. People really liked what they were making, and then they ended up buying an Indian food business from a family that had operated out of the old Brewery Market. “It has always been busy. I am very happy that so many people love my food, and everybody knows me through my food,” he says.

The Amins’ business was so successful that they managed to have a great standard of living in Halifax and put their two children through private school. Amin’s journey to get to that point wasn’t easy, and he worked damned hard to get there. But now, after creating this life from very little, they are set to retire happy.

Cooking for friends has always been important to Amin, though he admits having to tone down the heat of his dishes considerably. “When we have people over for parties at our house, we have to make less spicy dishes for the Canadians and a couple of really spicy dishes for the Bangladeshis. People do love to come to our house to eat, and we have lots of friends here.”

As for when he eats out, Amin often needs to up the heat. “When my wife and I eat Canadian food, we find it very bland, we always have to ask for Tabasco sauce. When some of our friends here took us for dinner at Steak and Stein, we had to use lots of Tabasco.”

Ting Jun Han and Yue Su

Beaver Sailor Diner: Challenging the Chinese Food Status Quo

When Yue Su opened the amazingly named Beaver Sailor Diner with his partner Mort, he didn’t want to serve up the typical Canadian Chinese food we’re all used to like chicken balls, fried rice and egg rolls. Instead, he wanted to offer the type of food that he would cook for friends. “We started from noodles,” he says. “It’s the very ordinary and staple food in China, and there are thousands of ways to cook it. To me, these are the stuff I have been eating since childhood, and to the customer, it’s the real homemade Chinese food made by family recipe.”

Su knows that food brings a deep emotional connection to people, and he values that above the ability to churn out fast food or to stick to what people know. It’s a model that has worked. With no advertising, Beaver Sailor has built up a loyal clientele who rave about their noodles and other dishes (for good reason).

A love of food in general means that Su has a great appreciation of the foods served up on the East Coast, and he wants to try it all. “When we travel around the East Coast, we always try to find some local food. We stopped by Antigonish for Mama’s steak [Mother Webb’s Steakhouse], went to Newfoundland for their fish cakes, enjoyed seafood chowder in PEI and many other excellent foods all around Halifax,” Su says. “I feel that all that good food has something in common. These dishes can somehow bring up your childhood memories, which are of the earliest impression of the taste and happiness.”

 Travelling and tasting his way around the Atlantic Canada provinces has been fun and fulfilling for Su. “I think food is a good way and angle to become familiar with the local culture.
I am always curious about where all the ingredients come from and how they use it,” he says. “After all, if we can eat together I see no reason we can’t live together.”