Edmonton’s must-try signature foods
Learn where these dishes came from and where to try them
Edmonton has a bevy of contenders for the food that’s nearest and dearest to the hearts of those who call the city home. These three dishes are part of what makes Alberta’s capital unique – and they’re super tasty, too.
Green Onion Cakes
Crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside and studded with savoury scallions, the green onion cake is a staple of Edmonton’s many festivals and markets, and a mainstay on restaurant menus. Many argue they should be Edmonton’s official food and in 2015 Edmontonian Salma Kaida started a petition to have green onion cakes declared so, sparking a lively public debate.
The story of Edmonton’s obsession with these savoury cakes started in 1978 when Siu To, a construction worker who immigrated from northern China, started serving them at his restaurants Happy Garden and Mongolian Food Experience. No other restaurant in town was serving anything like them at the time, but that changed quickly in the early 1980s after To began selling his cakes at Edmonton’s nascent Folk Music Festival, International Fringe Festival and Taste of Edmonton. They were a hit and many other food producers started selling them after that.
Green onion cakes come in two main forms: the original pan-fried pancake that To created and a fluffy, deep-fried version that resembles a doughnut. The cakes are usually eaten plain or dipped in various sauces, such as sambal hot sauce.
The 2015 debate about Edmonton’s official food was never formally settled as Edmonton city officials haven’t claimed any food as the city’s own. You have plenty of opportunities to decide this for yourself, with hundreds of restaurants across the city selling green onion cakes. Top choices include Blue Willow, Pho Hoan Pasteur and Pearl River. There’s even a green onion cake food truck, Rapscallions.
You can also get them right from the source: in 2018, To came out of retirement and opened Green Onion Cake Man, a cozy eatery centred around – you guessed it – his original recipe for green onion cakes.
The 2015 debate over Edmonton’s signature food started with green onion cakes, but donairs were also put forward as a candidate. That prompted Halifax city officials to proclaim the donair as their city’s official food in December 2015. One of their main motivations? Preventing Edmonton from claiming donairs first!
Halifax may be the donair’s official birthplace but Edmonton has become a spiritual home for this popular street food. The donair is related to Greek gyros and Turkish shawarma but it’s a uniquely modern Canadian creation: a pile of seasoned ground beef shaved off a vertical rotisserie, wrapped in pita, drizzled with milky sweet sauce and sprinkled with such toppings as tomato and onions.
Donairs were created in Halifax in the early 1970s by Greek immigrant Peter Gamoulakos, who adapted his gyro recipe to better fit a North American palate. It was a hit among the locals, and donairs moved west with the wave of Maritime labourers who travelled to Alberta during the oil boom in the 1970s and 80s. Lebanese immigrant Chawki El-Homeira worked in a Halifax donair shop before moving to Alberta in 1978. He opened Charles Smart Donair on Whyte Avenue in 1982, Edmonton’s first.
Since then, Edmontonians have embraced donairs as wholeheartedly as Haligonians have – arguably even more so. There are now well over 100 restaurants in Edmonton with “donair” in the name, compared to only 30 in Halifax and 50 in Calgary. Donairs are particularly beloved by the late-night bar crowd and they are a good lunch option, too.
You’re spoiled for choice when hunting for donairs in Edmonton, but you can’t go wrong with Marco’s Famous, Swiss Donair, PrimeTime or Top Donair.
This last entry often flies under the radar of Edmonton’s more popular signature foods, yet you just might have a bag stashed in your freezer right now. Perogies are ubiquitous at community events, church potlucks, festivals, markets, local restaurants and grocery stores.
Edmonton’s large Ukrainian and Polish communities established the popularity of these pillowy, half-moon stuffed dumplings in the early 20th century. Potato and cheese are the classic perogy filling, but bacon, onion, sauerkraut, mushroom and even various fruits (dessert perogy!) are also common flavours. Perogies are usually boiled or pan-fried and served with butter and sour cream.
Edmonton is home to a multi-million-dollar perogy empire. Heritage Frozen Foods, better known by the name of its signature brand Cheemo, has been making perogies in a northwest Edmonton manufacturing plant since 1972. Cheemo was started by Ukrainian immigrant Walter Makowecki and is currently run by his son Joe Makowecki. The facility churns out a dizzying three million perogies a day, which are distributed throughout grocery store freezers across Canada, the U.S. and even Mexico.
Edmonton also has a vibrant cottage industry of small perogy producers. Perogies are a staple on menus at Eastern European restaurants, of course, but they often crop up on menus of diners and cafes, and sometimes even in fine dining – RGE RD’s elevated take on the perogy is one of their most adored dishes.
Another top perogy place is the venerable Uncle Ed’s Ukrainian Restaurant, which also sells frozen take-home perogies from its next-door sister business Mundare Sausage House. Other great local spots are Taste of Ukraine, Shumka Ukrainian Foods and Widynowski’s Sausage House.