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Venezuela's Sabor y Suerte in Chinese Food
Chinese Food in Central and South America
Winter Volume: 2000 Issue: 7(4) page(s): 17 and 18
North Americans who live in big cities where Chinese food thrives may take for granted the gourmet abundance with which they are surrounded. Not so all our fellow Americans in the Southern hemisphere. In Venezuela, for example, one can be hard-pressed to find authentic Chinese fare and this reviewer tasted none that was extraordinary on a ten day junket from Caracas to Chichiriviche and back. That is not to say I did not eat well, with plenty of vibrant and succulent Venezuelan cuisine at every corner.
This is a country that reveres corn and prizes beef, a place where people wolf down cheese until 'after' the cows come home. To wit, one high-class restaurant forces four full tablespoons of grated Parmesan onto each small salad. So it is no surprise that Venezuelans are neither familiar with, nor particular to the dairy-free Chinese style of eating. Still, the Venezuelan national dish, Pabellon Criolla, a large scoop of white rice surrounded by deeply-spiced ground beef and stewed black beans, plantains, and white onions, is not unlike a typical Chinese lunch plate. Accompanied with aretitas, luscious baby corn patties and supersweet cheeses and creams, Pabellon Criolla shimmers at a restaurant overflowing with sheer Venezuelan class, the El Tinajero de los Helochos in downtown Caracas.
Living amidst New York’s five Chinatowns, is not a bad place to do research about the history of the Chinese in Venezuela. My search for statistics on population, immigration, principal occupations, history, and number of restaurants began at the Museum of Chinese in Americas, continued to the New York Public Library and the Venezuelan Consulate, and concluded with queries to a variety of authors and professors. Many queries but only one slim fact was revealed. In the year 1847, many Chinese men went to South America, a few as hopeful merchants, but most in the 'coolie trade' to dig guano, though mainly to Peru and Cuba, says Lynn Dan in the book Song of the Yellow Empire.
Her’s was the only bonafide fact. Venezuelans can tell you about the difficulty of getting official information, and admit to being notoriously hard to poll accurately. Though a Caraceno, or native of Caracas, cabbie postulated that the Chinese are everywhere but they keep to themselves; and a consular representative told me that many Chinese own and operate supermarkets in small towns.
A much respected Venezuelan artist, Javier Teles, who now lives in Queens provided the most off-the-cuff data. He remembers being surprised, about a decade ago, when he met an Asian man who spoke flawless Venezuelan with an especially thick Maracaibo accent. Turns out the Chinese man was born there in the 1970's, to immigrant parents, and he spoke eloquently of isolation.
Javier believes that Chinese immigration, mainly Cantonese, began in the 40's and 50's, and reached crescendo in the mid 70's in connection with the oil boom. He said that the Chinese shops in Venezuela are not so much supermarkets as purveyors of everything inexpensive for the home, from soups to mops. He added that more prosperous Asiaticos work in electronics. While there are Chinatowns in the major cities throughout Venezuela, they are non-descript and in non-touristic parts of town. Although my sparse encounters with Chinese Venezuelans did not yield much, I did learn that they are uniquely laid-back, gracious, effervescent, and seemingly unconcerned with the concepts of promotion and marketing so prevalent up north.
The city of Caracas has about five million inhabitants. That’s as official a statistic as anyone can get! There are just under a hundred Chinese restaurants in the 1999 telephone directory, a few of which are chains. There are no Thai, Korean, or Vietnamese spots listed, and only eight Japanese restaurants.
One typical small Chinese restaurant, with its fish tank traditionally placed in the entrance to block evil spirits, was painted with a scene of Venezuela’s fabulous Salta Angel or 'Angel Falls' and the mystical Amazon Jungle. Aside from an authentic looking photograph of Mao, the stereotypical and tacky decor here and in many other 'chop suey palaces' seemed to indicate that the Bronx’s own Orchids of Hawaii company must have done well in Venezuela a few decades ago. Sadly, the arts and sciences of Chinese cuisine in Venezuela appear to be in a state of stagnation.
Still, as is the roving restauranteur’s want, menu offerings are well adapted to local preferences. A typical lunch special found is for Cream of Corn Soup, Fried Rice, and Egg Rolls, oddly called Lumpia, which is what Filipino’s call their take on the egg roll. Common main course choices included Chop Suey, Lemon Chicken, or Sweet and Sour Chicken. Most Chinese restaurants also provide Platos Internationals, not unlike the American food offerings on Chinese-American menus, and typically include Shrimp Cocktail; Chicken, Avocado, or Mixed Salads; Beefsteak (Biftek de Solomo); Fried Fish and Chicken; and Grilled Meats. It is standard for local desserts to appear on Chinese-Venezuelan menus. Common ones were Tortas or their cakes including cheese cake. Cascos made from local guayaba fruit; and Quesillos, a flan-like dessert without cheese.
Near the Caracas university district called Los Chaguaramos, I visit Ling Nam, a large and extremely popular restaurant that prints its own take-out bags in three sizes. It looks lovely, set high in the hills, its red Chinese roof tiles blending in nicely with the Latin American adobe. The smell of over-fried food dissuades this hungry traveler from ordering there. The same holds true at a Mr. Chow Restaurant, a plebeian place which simply could not be related to the New York/London/Hollywood eateries of the same name.
To this point, things do not look pretty, but one cannot write about food without tasting. I nearly fell, running away from a frightening express take-out with 1960's looking Cantonese fare. Was it actually preserved from that bygone era? I skip Meider’s Exotic Chinese palace and end up at Bar Restaurant Tagon because of its unusual multi-colored Chinese scroll paintings. Tagon’s customers are typical Chinese food novitiates whose range of menu choices include incessant scarfing of a lurid red duck sauce. Squid, listed as Calamar con Salsa de Sha Sha en La Plancha or their grilled squid in sa cha sauce is unavailable. I pass on the Singapore Curried Rice Noodles despite poetic mistransliteration which conflate Singapore and Hong Kong into Singapong. I opt for Sopa Aleta de Tiburon which is a shark’s fin soup, even though the price is far too cheap to indicate use of actual shark’s fins. It is served boiling hot, with hot and sour soup-style ingredients, and only shrimp with no hint of shark or its fin. It does come with a hunk of bread that was sweet, white, and crusty. I thought I played it safe with the Shrimp Fried Rice, but it is dry as a bone, very plain, and with tasteless shrimp scattered about rice, onion, and cabbage. Either my expression or my attempts to speak Chinese elicited staff empathy; they voluntarily bring soy sauce, salt, and chile.
Things looked cheerier the next day when breakfast includes a fabulous local fruit called nispero, roughly the size of starfruits with kiwi-like skin and shiny brown pits like thin elongated tamarind seeds. These juicy and soft pear-textured fruits are packed with fresh fig and melon flavors. Fueled by them and a very old bus, my next stop is Falcon State on Venezuela’s Carribbean coast, in the heart of Morrocoy National Park. It is off-season and not even a Zane Grey cowboy book could capture the essence of the bus loping in to this dusty, one-crow town at the end of the continent.
The thirst-educing ride is soon forgotten with a plunge into the vast south Caribbean sea, bordered by a national park of islands, reefs, mangrove swamps, and wildlife of every description, especially flamingos. Of course, there are no Chinese restaurants in this town of six thousand inhabitants, but Restaurant Marisqueria Txalupa at Final Calle Zamora serves up scrumptious fruits of the Venezuelan sea with precision, flair, and a challenge to any Chinese chef.
There are two mercados or markets in Chichiriviche, both owned and operated by Chinese people. They carry a fairly complete line of Chinese dried and bottled products alongside a fully-stocked Venezuelan larder and a surprisingly large Italian section; and like Javier said, “piles of housewares like mountains.” The shop owner’s son admits, however, that their extensive Chinese family ends up eating most of the imported Chinese goods themselves. I share my Thai dried fish snack with him and he breaks open a can of Chinese arkshell clams and some cans of Polar beer and we savor a well-rounded, post-beach, multi-culti snack. I learn that both the consular representative and the Caraceno cabbie have been correct. For at least two generations now, Chinese people have kept to themselves while spreading throughout all parts of Venezuela in the retail grocery business.
I also learn some Venezuelan transliterations of Chinese words into Spanish. Taufu for tofu, caujada de soya for beancurd cake. Difficult words to translate include jajaticos Chinese which are their much-loved corn, the baby corn variety, also available as Sopa Creme de Jajato or Cream of Corn Soup. Given the Venezuelan penchant for corn, it is easy to understand why this baby version is their favorite part of a Venezuelan-Chinese meal. But is there any use of this baby item in their native dishes?
Duck served Crispy Crujiente or Peking-style (Pekines) is only offered at two Chinese restaurants I visit, and >i>caraotas Chinese, or Chinese black beans are equally difficult to find. Foo Young dishes are called Tortillas Chinos, and Chinese yellow curry is considered picante or spicy to the Venezuelan palate. Some other Chinese-Venezuelan words you might not find in a dictionary are Sopa Nida de Golondrina or Bird’s Nest Soup; Pasapalos for dumplings or their translation of passed appetizers; and Vieiras for scallops.
At the end of the trip, there remain two untried Chinese restaurant prospects, both in the inexpensive Soho-like neighborhood of Caracas called las Maercedes. The runner up is Gran China Restorante on Avenida Principal de las Mercedes near Calle Orinoco. The best looking place is Yan’s Garden which also has a Japanese kitchen. It is located on Calle Madrid, between Nueva York and Trinidad. Their authentic sounding Mongolian Noodles, their Rice Cakes, and their black bean dishes with scallions and not onions must be tops in Venezuela.
It is said that Venezuela’s closest coast to Beijing is nicknamed China, and that is about as close as it gets. It is even hard to find ginger ale in this solidly western land! Perhaps the best advice would be to try making your own Chinese-Venezuelan food by substituting the national condiment, huasacaca for any Chinese dish you might accompany with hot pepper sauce or roasted salt. One abuelita or grandmother gladly shared her family recipe. It is as follows: For guasacaca verde, the green variety, blend finely chopped garlic, a little diced onion, mayonnaise, cilantro and a bit of green pepper into a smooth celadon green condiment with the consistency of thin yogurt. They have a red variety, too. Try dipping some Salt-baked Squid in this and ahora, este es Sabor y Suerte–now that’s Flavor and Fortune!
Harley Spiller thanks Javier and Elena Teles for their gracious help, and Flavor and Fortune readers in Canada’s Northwest Territories and Luxor in Egypt for their take-out and eat in menus. He now has more than forty countries represented in his huge Chinese menu collection. Also known as the Inspector Collector, Spiller teaches about the art and science of collecting and since early fall, and appears regularly at the New York Historical Society.