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Chinese Food: Hot, Spicy, and Mexican

by Janet Long

Chinese Food in Central and South America

Fall Volume: 1997 Issue: 4(3) page(s): 7 and 8

Contacts between China and Mexico date as far back as the 16th century, when the two countries were connected through commerce by way of the Philippines. At that time, the Philippines were the estern-most outpostr of the Spanish Empire

When the Spanish explorers set out on their journeys of discovery at the end of the 15th century, they were not specifically searching for new lands to conquer. Rather they were more interested in the search for gold and spices and a new route to the East Indies. Portuguese and Venetian merchants controlled the European spice market and the Spaniards wanted to participate in this lucrative trade.

After the conquest of Mexico in 1521, the Spanish crown continued in its search for spices and prepared an expedition to sail from the West Coast of Mexico. It was from there, that they made several attempts to reach the Spice Islands. They finally reached the Philippines in 1562 and took the islands in the name of King Philip II, reigning monarch of Spain. It was not until three years later in 1565, that they were able to find a return rourte to America and make this voyage a two-way trip. This was one of the most important maritime dicoveries of the 16th century. It enabled the Spaniards to establish a trade route between Mexico and the Philippines that was to last two hundred fity years.

During this time at least one and sometimes two ships, known as the 'Manila Galleon,' or the Nao de China, sailed from Acapulco to Manila every year. There they purchased goods from the China mainland brought by Chinese junks to markets set up in Manila. Mexican silver became the medium of exchange in the Orient, and continued until the gold standard was set in the 20th century. The trade route was discontinued in 1820, after Mexico gained independence from Spain.

How much influence did this two hundred fifty-year contact with the Chinese and the Philippines have on Mexican cuisine? Probably not a lot. There is little evidence of Chinese or Oriental influence in Mexican food, although several food products were introduced at that time. It can be noted, however, that a certain degree of cultural influence from the Orient is found in Mexican popular art and in some traditional costumes.

The 'Manila Galleon' brought several new food products to Mexico which have influenced the evolution of Mexican food, among these were a variety of spices. Cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and black pepper had already been introduced from Europe by the Spaniards, but greater quatities were now available directly from the Orient. Mangoes from Ceylon and Malaysia and tamarind pods from India arrived on the Galleon and have become important ingredients in Mexican cuisine.

There are few references to Philippine or Chinese immigrants in Mexican archives, although this exchange must have been common throughout the two-hundred-fifty-year period of contact. Since immigration was not legal, there is no registered official data on their arrival. All people with oriental features were called 'chinos' no matter where they came from. The word 'chino' also refers to a member of the servant class; this makes the situation even more confusing.

It was not until the latter half of the 19th century when there was a concentrated effort to bring Chinese workers to Mexico. At that time, they were hired from agencies in Hong Kong or San Francisco to work on the railroads, in the silver mines, or on the large haciendas on the coasts of Mexico where the population was sparse and the climate extreme. The new immigrants proved to be hard-working, frugal, and willing to work for low salaries. Chinese immigrants also used Mexico as a stopping-off point to gain entry to the United States, as they still do today.

After they had fulfilled thir commitmants, and their debts for food and transportation had been paid, they were free to become incorporated into the labor market and work where they wanted to. Some became traveling merchants, others set up small store where they sold a variety of goods at very cheap prices, still others established laundries and small Chinese cafes. Some set up small food stands along the railroad tracks where they had once been employed.

Official records show that the Chinese populatin reached its highest level in 1930 when there were seventeen thousand eight hundred sixty-five Chinese in Mexico. By 1960, official figures had dropped to little over five thousand Chinese in Mexico. Today the Chinese colony is extremely small and Mexico City's Chinatown is on short city block in the downtown area.

Some fifteen years ago, there were only a few Chinese restaurants in the city. There were, however, several Chinese cafes. With the opening of the Mexican ecomony during the past decade, many American Chinese restaurant chains have set up franchises and opened new restaurants in Mexico City. This coupled with an increase in the interest of the public in food, and a general improvement in the economic situation of the middle and upper classes, there has been created a favorable atmosphere for new types of eating places. Today, there are three types of establishments that serve Chinese food in Mexico City. They are: Chinese cafes, small traditional Chinese restaurants, and very upscale luxury Chines restaurant.

Chinese cafes began opening in Mexico City some fifty years ago. They became a favorite and an inexpensive restaurant choice for people with limited income. They differ from traditional Chinese restaurants in that they also serve Mexican food. Menus in Chinese cafes are divided, serving about half Mexican and half Chinese dishes. They typically serve Enchiladas, Chilaquiles, Chinese-style Refried Black Beans, Grilled Chicken and Grilled Beef, and Scrambled Eggs with Beans. The Chinese menu typically consists of Chop Suey, Chow Mein, Fried Rice and a few other simple dishes. Other distinctive features are that they serve coffee instead of tea, you are not provided with chopsticks for your meal, and that the cook in the kitchen is Mexican, rather than Chinese.

Chinese Cafes are easily recognized by the amount of Chinese Bisquets staked in the cafe's display window. Bisquets have their own peculiar hisotry in Mexico, The technique for making them was picked up by Chinese railroad workers in the United States and introduced to Mexico by Chinese cooks who came to work on the local railroads. They have become a trademark for Chinese cafes. Some people go to Chinese cafes just to buy a supply of these Bisquets.

Small Traditional Chinese Restaurants serve Cantonese-style food. Most Chinese immigrants who arrived during the latter part of the 19th century or early in the 20th century came from Canton. Mexicans prefer hot and spicy food and the restaurants in this country have adapted menus and cooking techniques toplease the local palate. The spicy dishes are popular items on the menus of Mexico's Chinese restaurants.

Some Chinese restuarants do have a Chinese cook in the kitchen and in some, clients are provided with chopsticks, along with forks. These samll traditional Chinese restaurants can be quite inexpensive. On a recent visit to an unpretentious one, a three-course meal was purchased for three and a half dollars. The meal included Chicken and Vegetable Soup, a plate of Sping Rolls, Pork Spare Ribs, breaded Jumbo Shrimp with Sweet and Sour Sauce and Chinese mustard. There was an option of Beef in Oyster Sauce or Chop Suey with Chicken. This was served with Fried Rice made with shrimp, pork, and egg, and with Jasmine tea. For less than a dollar more, one could order the menu with fish. This is indeed a bargain.

Upscale Luxury Chinese Restaurants, during the past decade, with the increase in interest in food in general, these and other foreign restaurants have become popular. Today, Mexico City offers almost any kind of food anyone might want. Among these new and popular restaurants are several luxury Chinese restaurants. They serve excellent food, are expensive, and have become popular with the professional classes. Some are United States restaurant chains with local franchises; others are independent establishments. They serve Hunan, Mandarin, and Sichuan type food, the latter the most popular because of its spicy dishes. These restaurants are famous for their decor, atmosphere, and location,and for all of these, the client pays a high price. These are among the 'in' restuarants where people go to 'see and be seen.'

Most people like food that in some way resembles their own. Spicy Sichuan dishes with hot peppers and salsa are much in demand, as are taco-like dishes such as Peking Duck, and Filled Lettuce Leaves, which can be rolled up and eaten like a taco. Large restaurants hire fine Chinese chefs brought from Hong Kong or the United States, and at the moment these restaurants are very popular.

How does Mexican Chinese food differ from Chinese food served in other countries? To a certain degree, every culture adapts foods to fit in with local food habits. Mexico has an ancient and well-rooted food tradiotn that dates back some five thousand years. The basic diet in 3,500 BCE was based upion maize, beans, chili peppers, and squash; it has remained the same throughout the centuries. Mexicans still prefer food based upon these familiar ingredients.

Mexican Chinese food is hotter and spicier than Chinese food in other countries, with the possible exception of Peru, where Chinese restaurants, called chifas also serve hot and spicy food. Certain Chinese ingredients are not available in Mexico and so local chefs have to substitute local products such as jicama for the Chinese water chestnut. Jicama has a similar crisp texture and is a good alternative for this ingredient.

Chinese restaurants use a hot chili papper called chili de arbol which resembles a cayenne type pepper that is in use in China but is of Mexican origin. Another difference noted is that Fried Rice is made with more oil than in other countries. Mexican-style rice is generally fried, the excess oil drained off before the liquid is added. This type of rice is favored by the Mexican palate and Chinese chefs have adjusted to this preference.

The above three tyoes of Chinese food establishments are popular in Mexico today. Their menus vary according to the type of restaurant and each of them serves a different segment of Mexico City's diverse population. Do come down and see for yourself!
Janet Long, a Research Associate at Insitute de Investigaciones Historica at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, has a PhD in and studies social anthropology.

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