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Chinese Flavors of Peru

by Jorge Salazar

Chinese Food in Central and South America

Spring Volume: 2002 Issue: 9(2) page(s): 15 and 16

How many cultures influenced what some inappropriately call the 'Creole Cuisine' of Peru? We may never know, but what is certain is that there is an immense number. Together, these many varieties make up Peruvian cuisine, particularly that found along its long coast. There, you can inventory an important culinary inheritance that originated in China. Foreigners that travel the streets of Lima, as well at that of the main cities of the coast, are astonished by the profusion of Chinese restaurants. They will not find a neighborhood nor a district that does not have one or more establishments serving Chinese food. These places are generically called 'chifas.' In contrast to other towns in other countries, Peruvians have found in the word 'chifa' a special and brief translation for dishes of Chinese origin. These foods come from the past and are an integral part of the current cuisine of Peru.

We have not discovered how this millennial cuisine of China achieved its gastronomic perfection, but we can point out that this cuisine was worshiped in its country of origin as one of the most important of man’s arts, above painting, music and poetry. It has maintained that tradition in Peru through generations of descendants. One could say that this food, without moving away from its origins, has made history in the country of Incas and Viceroys. That said, in Lima as in Canton or Beijing, anyone can enjoy the most delicious dishes.

Experts of gastronomy, for example, know that in certain corners of an old Chinese neighborhood in the city of the Rimac, as well as in some restaurants in elegant neighborhoods in Lima, they will find ‘one-hundred-year-old eggs’ made following the same rules that cooks in Hong-Kong or Beijing follow to achieve their special concentration of flavors. There and in Peru, they are used in one or more of the most popular dishes of China. Travelers assure that these eggs are supreme delights of the Chinese imperial cuisine. Peking duck consumption is also a solid argument for visiting a 'chifa' in Lima. After tasting one or both, and visiting other 'chifa' restaurants there are even more queries as to how, where, and/or when did this Peruvian Chinese culinary join together?

The history behind these and related questions sometimes clarifies, other times serves more to confuse. However, it does tell us that the first restaurant serving Chinese cuisine in Peru's capital city of Lima opened in 1921. It was located in the heart of the Chinese neighborhood in Lima on an old street called Capon. This local place, called: Kuong Tong, had from its earliest days, welcomed special types of clients, successful Chinese merchants of the area, other people of high and refined locales, along with writers, journalists and artists. Kuong Tong is an example of general acceptance that Chinese cuisine received in Peru. That can be seen by the fact that it survived until the 1970s, was owned by the Chinese consul in Peru. He gave it an important national reputation. José Rada Gamio, a mayor from Lima at that time, was then minister of State. It was during president's Leguia's government. He inaugurated the restarurant and was its godfather. The godmother was no one less than the Chinese ambassador's wife. As one can suppose, the menu of this restaurant served an exquisite and refined selection of dishes from different and varied regions of China. Some columnists of the time eulogized the flavors and exoticism of the Soup of Nest of Swallows and the Duck with Bamboo, and the Boneless Hen. But what constituted a true gastronomic novelty was not only these, but also the specialty of the house, the shrimp. They were from the restaurant’s own hatchery, an immense and luminous fountain of water installed in the entrance gardens of the luxurious establishment.

Another novelty of this new restaurant, Kuong Tong, was that the cooks were professionals specially brought from Canton, China’s gastronomic core. With that starting point, new Chinese restaurants opened up in the area and they had an obligation, if they wanted to compete with Kuong Tong, they had to have a cuisine of very high quality. It was the luck of the city, that very soon the whole street of Capon filled with Chinese restaurants. Due to the competition, the food prepared in them responded to high demands, it was the best. After Kuong Tong, there was Chung Kuo, Rhyme Pho, Tonquinsen, and San Joy Lao.

High class people of Lima went to these chifa restaurants and made eating Chinese food fashionable. Very soon, streets near Capon Street became home to other Chinese restaurants. They were smaller and their clientele were mostly from more popular and populous sectors. Their menus were limited and their dishes the very popular items such as Chaufa or Fried Rice, Wanton Soup, Tamarind Pork, better known elsewhere as Sweet and Sour Pork, and Sauté Noodle. These received the blessings of their clientele, gained importance, that is to say, and they incorporated them like into their daily diet.

Chinese food and the restaurants of that nationality also fulfilled another function, they moved these tastes to the interior of the nation. They were a kind of social and familial integrator, so much so, that there is not a family, friends' group, or institution of all kind, nor any event such as a birthday, wedding, anniversary or national holiday, that does not end at what Peru’s popular speech denotes as 'a good chifa.' Somehow, Chinese restaurants filled an institutional hole in middle and lower social classes because high society always had its own houses and mansions to celebrate at. Nowhere is there another society where Chinese gastronomica has universally been accepted as it has in Peruvian society. In good part, this explains why you always find one or more 'chifas' at least in coastal neighborhoods.

The quarter of a century from 1849 to 1874, was when a hundred thousand people, mostly from the Canton region, enhanced the labor force in Peru. They came and worked in the countryside and at the fundos on the coast. They also worked as domestic servants in the cities. Somehow, that large human contingent replaced black workers after a Peruvian decree abolished slavery. The Chinese who arrived in large numbers came with deceiving and misleading work contracts. However, they demanded of their employers, as part of their payment, a regular quantity of rice. This food, the basis of their traditional and nutritious diet, served as a turning point in Peru’s food history. The reason was simple, at that time, rice was not produced in the country. So the landowners who hired these Chinese were forced to import it. In those years, that very Chinese presence forced landowners to sow rice along the Peruvian coast. Starting with that substantial decision, changes began in the way local people cooked, and as a direct result, most of the plates, stews, sauces and meats in Peru began being accompanied by plain rice.

Do not think that the diffusion of Asian flavors into Peru begins with the appearance of those 'chifas' in the second decade of the twentieth century. It probably started further back than that. To begin with, a minimum number of Chinese emigrations had a concrete destination: namely, domestic service in the houses of the rich and the estates of landowners. We can imagine that those families that had butlers, servants, and Chinese cooks belonged to the first. Peruvians were surprised by the delight of the distant flavors they brought. The second wave is well-known, that is once the Chinese immigrants of the field completed their work contracts with the landowners, they went to the cities. There, in the marginal areas and in popular markets, they established food stands and small inns. With time, and due to the great acceptance of their food, these immigrants began to displace national people selling foods.

Chronicles that go back to 1860 tell about foreign experiences. These testimonials speak of the Chinese cuisine of Peru and specifically discuss foods eaten in inns and popular markets. The renowned Spanish writer, Julio Camba, in his book The House of L’culo published in Madrid, narrates anecdotal and revealing facts about the deliciousness of this food prepared by the Chinese immigrants. In the chapter dedicated to Chinese gastronomy, the author admits his appreciation of the food of what he calls: the Mandarins. This was not picked up in China, but in Peru it said it was from "that mysterious neighborhood of Lima.”

Lima may be one foreign capital where, outside of China, one can correctly enjoy this wonderful cuisine that has many followers in the world. The almost perfection of Chinese cuisine in Peru has an explanation with one word: Canton. China, similar to many nations, does not have one uniform cuisine. On the contrary, there are four gastronomic regions that stand out. They are that of the North or of Beijing, which some call Imperial cuisine; one that uses a kitchen full with etiquette. It is one where a woman should begin taking the taste, where all the foods should be served in small bite-size pieces, and it should not contain bones. In that delicate culinary, the Pekinese dish called 'lacquered duck' is known as Peking Duck in the rest of the world. Another gastronomic region is the one of Fujian located in the central marine area of China where one finds the famous cities of Nanjing and Shanghai. In this region, the fish and mollusks reach perfection. The third culinary region is Sichuan. This is in the center of the country boasting a cuisine characterized by strong and contrasting flavors. From this area comes sweet and sour, spicy flavors, and other hot dishes. The fourth culinary region is of Canton. Its cuisine, for historical reasons, is a kind of brilliant synthesis of the other regions. The history of how that cuisine became what it is, dates to the seventeenth century. At that time, Canton for political reasons, was the central point of all the Mandarins and Chinese princes. Peruvians are fortunate to be familiar with Chinese cuisine, one of the greatest gastronomies in the world.

As one looks beyond history, books and the erudite or less expert in the matter are convinced that the Chinese cuisine of Peru has its origin in the above mentioned immigration. However, it is possible that the establishment of this Chinese-Peruvian gastronomy dates back to the end of the sixteenth century.

According to a trustworthy but not very known documentation circulated around Lima, there was Chinese merchandise of very diverse types: books, manuscripts, silk pieces, jade and parts of the wardrobe of chosen noblemen and merchants. Some of these were manufactured in linings and layers, the same as what is called the 'shawls of Manila.' This nomenclature is not because it has Philippine origin, but because it was embarked in that Eastern port, a central point of the Spanish penetration. It origins may have been unknown in many areas in China. This has an explanation that includes that the Spaniards and Portuguese carried out their colonial adventures in the Americas after visiting some strategic points in China and Japan. The case can be made that many rich gentlemen had economic interests in things Chinese. They were probably noblemen dedicated to trading and perhaps involved in early smuggling routes among the seas of China and Callao.

Gentlemen of Lima and Macao, at that time, were not that adventurous. But they may have been won over by the delights of the food of the Mandarins; they may have made these tastes theirs. It should be noted that the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de La Cinta inaugurated a commercial route from Canton to Callao in the Philippines in 1583. It is also known that a gentleman of Seville origin, Juan of Mendoza, had business here and there. He writes his impressions about those 'rarities' in the Chinese sexual customs and the incredible flavor of oriental dishes. Juan of Mendoza arrived in Lima in the viceroy's Toledo retinue, which had a large troupe of servants, many from China, others from the Andes of Peru.

Today, you can consume foods of Chinese origin in the carts of street vendors that populate many streets in Lima. There is the aforementioned Chaufa Rice, Sauté Noodles, Tamarind Pork, and Wonton Soup. Although tamarind has been replaced by a prepared sauce made of tomatoes, sugar and vinegar, the neighborhood chefs and the housewives are convinced of the genuineness of their preparations.

To end this tale of Chinese food influences in my country, it is necessary to add many national dishes of Peru, Rice with Duck among them. They have their origin in what some say is mysterious China. There are other preparations such as Sauté Beef Loin; this is a product of the creativity of the Chinese in Peru. The Chinese arrived in this land and became part creole. They began to use Peru’s national tuber, the potato, to create dishes that today form part of many delights that the country of the Inca and the Viceroys offer,; they know that Peruvian food is rendering homage to the best flavors known in the world.
Jorge Salazar is a university professor who has worked in England, France, Spain, Germany and Belgium. He writes mystery stories, and about sport, food, and travel. He delves into other areas of the media, and has garnered several prizes for his literary works. One of these is the 'Premio Casa de las Americas' prize for an item published in 1980.

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