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On Many Menus: In Peru
Chinese food in Central and South America
Fall Volume: 2002 Issue: 9(3) page(s): 17 and 18
Seventy-five Chinese arrived in Peru on October 15, 1849. It is to them that thanks are due as they set the stage for the many hundreds of Chinese restaurants called chifas now in that country. These folk take root and are joined by increasing numbers of immigrants. They come, work off their indentured time, and settle in. They contribute to Peru’s cultural mix with major items. See Jorge Salazar’s article in Flavor and Fortune's Volume 9(2) on pages 15-16; there one learns this, helps increase Peruvian-Chinese understandings, and explains early Chinese life in Peru.
The adoption of the Cantonese culinary may be the most visible Chinese-Peruvian mix, but there are other permanent markers of this more than one hundred fifty year bi-cultural association. Some say that the most important one is a diplomatic encounter which concludes with the China-Peru Peace, Friendship, Navigation and Trade Treaty on June 26, 1874. The sports-minded might dispute this historic treaty and tout a Peruvian-Chinese Olympic gold medalist, Edwin Vasquez Cam. Yet others with different items of importance on their own agendas will want to include Folklorist Bianca Wong Rodriguez, composer Erasmo Diaz Yuijan, or other people or events that raise awareness of the close bonds between China and Peru.
We prefer to look at Chinese dining on all levels. It is wonderful in and around Lima, the capital. Guess we will need to make a return visit to report on some of those in the rest of Peru, but advising about some Chinese food there now will do, for starters. Readers have a head start in the last issue of Flavor and Fortune, that is also in Volume 9(2), but on pages 29 and 30 about the Restaurant Royal there. There is much more to tell and many more Chinese restaurants worth visiting.
At the risk of being repetitive, allow us to say that Chinese dining, on all levels, is wonderful in Peru. Going to Lima’s Chinatown makes it possible to see and savor a lot of it. Elsewhere in the city and its suburbs there are so many places to try, weeks or months are needed, depending upon how many meals can be consumed on any given day.
FUNG YEN ROSTICERIA RESTAURANTE at Jiron Ucayali 744; phone: 511 427-6567 is where C. Alberto Gan Chou, who came to Lima as a teenager, helps make Chinatown great. He makes the best roast meats; and the lines to purchase them speak louder than any words we can add. For those who make themselves thin and sneak past those waiting for the terrific roast duck that shines and shouts about how good it is, they can be rewarded faster in the restaurant if they order it to eat in. While doing so, they need to taste some of his chef’s sophisticated dim sum and their other delicious dishes. Look into an open window at the kitchen’s preparations and be sure to order a noodle dish or two and some soups, as well. They, his tendon dishes, and his Tai Pa which is a magnificent mix of meat, shrimp, and quail eggs served on noodles, are not to be missed either. Nor should anyone skip the fried rice he makes without soy sauce. And there are his pasteleria offerings. We note that many of those delicious looking pastries are part of the roast duck and other meat take-out orders, and we do understand why.
RESTAURANT ORIENTAL WA LOK at Jiron Paruro; phone: 846 878 511 427-2656 is around the corner. Going there during many a mealtime requires doing what knowledgeable Lima latecomers do, grab a table on their second floor. We suggest getting there early or going next door to their second restaurant. Both are serviced by the same superb kitchen that makes the best rice and some of the best Chinese food in Peru. Their rice is a wonderful foil for the rest of their fine food. The Steamed Fish with Scallions is so succulent and the small amount of sauce so savory, we still smile thinking about the broth flavored with thin soy sauce, scallions, and ginger that it sits on. We taste a bit of Pisco, Peru’s beloved alcoholic beverage, in the sauce and deem it a wonderful cultural combination. Regulars at Wa Lok include editors from El Comercio, Mario Sifuentes Briceno and Jorge Salazar, historian and Professor and expert par excellance of Chinese food in Peru. We meet both of them by chance when they are eating there, and we see other Chinese restaurant owners and big wigs in the Chinese community and in local government doing likewise.
WA LOK RESTAURANT at Jiron Cueva 733, Puebla Libra has a chef-owner, Alan Chang, who came to Peru about twenty years ago. He began as many immigrants do, washing dishes. Doing so sparked his culinary interests and enabled his learning many classic and creative techniques. Now, as a master of ever so many, he not only cooks great food, but he has a secret ingredient, his hostess Liliana Com. She helps every patron order the freshest and the best, sits down with many of them and details their how’s and why’s, and after your meal hands out another of Wa Lok’s secrets, their made in-house fortune cookies. These three-inch pencil-shaped tasty treats have their fortune rolled into a tooth-pick-sized piece of paper and inserted just before baking. Not only are the fortune’s worth reading, but the cookie is so good you want to eat a dozen of them.
SALON CAPON at Jiron Paruro 819; phone: 511 426-9286 is where it is easier to snare a table; it is across the street. There you can find classic dim sum and dishes galore. We only have a quick bite there and find their Chinese Cannalones which were made with roast pork quite savory but a mite too salty. The Shrimp Dumplings we have there are divine, the Spare Ribs just OK, and while the Chicken Feet in Black Bean Sauce do pass muster, they are not the best in the Chinatown area.
PALACCIO BEIJING RESTAURANT in the Milleflores area is at 768-B Avenidas Benavides 511 444-1889. Liliana Com takes us here to meet her dear friends Llalo and Maria Balbi, author of Los Chifas en Peru reviewed in Flavor and Fortune’s Volume 8(3) on pages 25-26. Balbi writes that there are more Chinese influenced restaurants called chifas in Peru than there are Criolla restaurants serving Peruvian food. She details many restaurants and is kind enough to go to one with us. Though we do not ask her, we do believe that Fung Yen may have been that book's mystery restaurant.
Kenneth Sin, the owner with his wife who is this eatery's superb chef holds court there. He ably assists in the kitchen and plays piano to entertain guests. They pre-prepare dinner for us together. She cooks a fantastic Hong Kong style dinner, and he plays; all especially for us. Sin's wife may be the only first-rate female chef in Peru. Her credentials are impeccable. She comes from Hong Kong and has worked in a restaurant in Lyon, France.
We begin with their homemade Pao Tsai, Scallion Pancakes, and a dish of Pickled Cucumber. All are excellent as are the Dumplings and the Xinjiang black vinegar available to dip them in. We have a Hot and Sour Soup loaded with lots of coriander and bamboo shoots but no golden-needle-cum-lily-buds to go with the cloud ear fungi. The Fried Rice that follows tastes like an Italian risotto. The String Beans with Sichuan Cabbage that come next are great while the Whole Fish with Shiitake Mushrooms after it make Sichuan-style taste rather salty. The Noodles, House Style, were loaded with onions and wonderful while the last unnamed doughy dessert dish with honey was too sweet for our taste.
Chinese influences are everywhere, in and outside of the regular restaurants and chifas. We adore watching vendors sell their most popular dish, called 'Airport.' It is a fried rice and noodle mix with vegetables added, and is made on request of the customer. This local favorite draws lines of customers who then walk down the street eating their Airport with fingers or fork, some wiping their mouth with their sleeve if they forget to take or buy a napkin, as the case can be. We never get the chance to eat this item and are now a bit sorry. Reasons include not enough time, often too much in the tummy, and a serious concern that the street food we do taste is mighty salty. This is certainly a big problem in the rural areas and in several smaller restaurants in both city and country.
On one occasion in Chinatown, we have breakfast with Alcia, the wife of Siu Jau Kin, president of the 'Sociedad Central de la Beneficiencia China de Lima.' We have a bowl of Congee loaded with shredded lettuce, a local taste, and pickled mustard greens, dried fish, boiled peanuts, and scallions. Now we find ourselves ordering shredded lettuce with congee and New Yorkers looking at us strangely; but that crisp cold in the soft hot mixture really does it. What a fantastic combo. We are at Wa Lok, and Alicia had, we did too, their Har Gow and their Chive Dumplings which come steamed and sitting on a slice of carrot. That slightly sweetens the dough and is another Peruvian influence we now request. Alicia was a font of local and less than local information and one thing we learn from her we would like to share. That is that Zest
is the book to buy or one can use their website at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn about their Zagat-type ratings of restaurants in Hong Kong.
RESTAURANTA SALON CHINO at Jiron Ucayali 727; phone: 511 428-8350 is one we visit another day. It is also in Chinatown. This up-an-escalator second-story two-part place has a forty-plus plate buffet available only at lunchtime, and regular menu selections from morning to night. While the buffet looks lovely, and our appetite is whet by a vendor downstairs selling live frogs, silk squash, and long beans, we did have a good breakfast and are planning a big dinner, so we chose to order ala carte. Their Sticky Rice comes with honey as a side dish. We opt to ignore it and are treated to a delicious staple which we enjoy with Pickled Pigs Feet made with vinegar and red ginger. We taste their Dragon Boat Bun served South American style with rice and beans. It is OK. Better are the skewered Fish Balls on super greens and their roasted meats. We have half Roast Duck and half Soya Chicken and argue over which is best; they both are very good. Needing to pretend we are locals, we order food here with an Inca Kola, and while we admire their support of the lovely pedestrian mall in Chinatown, we prefer our food with tea, even though it is just ordinary. Speaking of Lima’s Chinatown Mall, Shell Oil, BP, and others also supported its construction about two years ago.
O-MEI RESTAURANTE ORIENTAL on Avenida Javier Prado Este 5902; phone: 511 437-0188 is one place we venture outside of Chinatown to eat at. It deserves special attention. It is a combo Chinese and Thai place near many of the upscale hotels. It is very upscale, too, complete with valet parking, and more. The owner brags that his huge freezer is the only walk-in one in Peru, his ladies room the only one with a likeness of Marilyn Monroe on the door, etc. We rather discuss his food, the Chinese food, as that is all we taste.
The Dim Sum Plate comes elevated on a silver holder. The items on it are good, and as we nibble on them we wish the staff were as polished. The fish and the other dishes tend to tout their fusion tastes, Chinese, Thai, Peruvian, and even overtones of French and Vietnamese. Named for a region in Sichuan Province, this third rendition of what began as a chifas, has a very loyal following. Some of them are so loyal, the son advises, that he is following them and opening another O-Mei in Mexico City. Other brag points we are told and we can not neglect to add, is that “if you eat here once a week you get a free dinner each month” and that this eatery “sells more red wine than any other Oriental restaurant in Peru.” We note the wine list heavy on wines Chilean and the food heavier on ambiance or dining experience than taste.
Peru is home to the largest Chinese population in South America, and there is the largest Chinatown on that continent. That said, it is clear that the above comments barely do justice to the many Chinese dining experiences one can have. After the arrival of the first small number of Chinese immigrants, and then the thousands that followed, Peruvians quickly learned to grow rice to meet their needs. Using it and their Chinese connections, they continually strive to make great Chinese food. They have succeeded and they satisfy the Chinese and the Peruvians, and all visiting gringos clever enough to seek out the many great Chinese eateries in Lima and throughout Peru. Chinese restaurants in Peru satisfy the ten percent of the population who are Asian, two-thirds of them Chinese; and they delight us, too. They can do likewise for everyone who is clever enough to go and enjoy them.