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Crossing El Bosque: Chinese Food in Venezuela

by Harley Spiller

Chinese Food in Central and South America

Fall Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(3) page(s): 5, 7, 33, 34, and 35

Contrary to what I reported in 2000, in the pages of Flavor and Fortune''s Volume 7(4), there 'IS' a Chinatown in Venezuela. It can be found on a mountainside smack in the middle of Caracas. On my first trip to Venezuela, in 1999, I thought the best Chinese food was in Las Mercedes, a ritzy area roughly the equivalent of today’s Park Avenue South in Manhattan. There, restaurants look fine, but it’s intuitively evident that this upscale food is prepared for non-Chinese tastes.

This time around, about two years later, I found the heart of the Chinese community of Caracas. Still unlisted in most English guidebooks, the district is known as 'El Bosque' and pronounced lisping the ‘s’ letter. El Bosque has two Arabic restaurants, at least seven Chinese restaurants, and a large indoor/outdoor Chinese social club. The Club serves as the hub of Venezuela ’s Chinese community, hosting a plethora of social, athletic, and cultural activities. There is a even a no-frills restaurant serving hard-to-find Chinese staples like tofu, fish cake, and such.

The private 'Members-only Club' also functions as a service organization, sponsoring educational programs, maintaining job listing boards, hosting banquets, and displaying photos thereof. One such memento in color shows Club members proudly gathering about the dinner table with President Hugo Chavez.

Venezuela’s two major Chinese newspapers are available at the Club. The larger is the weekly Panda Semanario, a four-page broadsheet containing local and international Chinese news. Not surprisingly, many Chinese restaurants are among Panda’s biggest advertisers.

I had traveled to Caracas at the invitation of Javier Téllez, the Venezuelan artist whose information helped prepare the above-mentioned article. For this piece, September 2002 was a risky time to visit Venezuela, but this was not only a vacation, there was cultural work to be done.

Javier’s work is concerned with the lives of cultural outsiders, so he found me, and avant-guard museum professional, kid’s educator, and Chinese-food-addicted New Yorker with Russian, Polish and Viennese roots, a natural subject. I acceded to his request to conduct a videotaped interview and lend objects from my collection of restaurant memorabilia. My ABC (American-born-Chinese) friend and Chinese food mentor, Michael Chang Pin, son of chefs, joined this junket to the Republica Bolivariana de Venezuela.

Javier selected a group of some sixty menus and related objects, both new and old, for display in the Museum’s existing gallery of antique Chinese porcelain. This large municipal collection contains rare and valuable porcelains that were amassed and donated in the early twentieth century by two wealthy Venezuelan sinophiles. His choices included a 1947 photograph of my parents dining at a Broadway nightclub-restaurant called 'China Doll.'

Also exhibited was the program from that long-ago evening’s entertainment that featured an act that would offend cultured individuals today, ‘Slant Eyed Scandals’ by Lee Mortimer’s China Dolls. The menu cover features a pan-Asian looking woman wearing a cheong sam with an impossibly high slit. Was it blasphemy to place this sexy material alongside a golden statue of Buddha? An Indian psychoanalyst attending the show commented: “Buddha would not have a problem, but Buddhists would.”

Seeing a paper menu from 20th-century Cleveland alongside a giant blue, white and red platter from 17th century Jingdeshen, is cause for re-evaluation of both. The show broached such discussions and covered themes like cultural imperialism, and how museums necessarily change the meaning of the cultural artifacts they contain. Being a part of this major museum exhibition was instrumental in 'opening doors' in Caracas’ community of nearly forty thousand Chinese, many of whom are involved in commerce such as the import/export business. After the opening, we were invited to the stupendous home of Flerida Perna, widow of one of the participating artists, Claudio Perna. Ever appropriate, Flerida ordered a Chinese take out banquet for the occasion. We feasted on surprisingly fresh and delicious gai lan (Chinese broccoli); good, plain fried skinny rice noodle; fair assorted fried rice; overly sweet and not-very-sour sweet-and-sour chicken; and decent soy-sauce beef with onions. All was served with the sweet Challah-like bread that Venezuelans insist on having at most every Chinese meal.

In 1999, I had tasted no extraordinary Chinese food so this takeout banquet was a considerable improvement. I had contacted the Venezuelan consulate before and after my first trip, but they were unable to provide me with a single fact about Chinese people in Venezuela. It was Javier who was most informed about Chinese emigrants. He told of a pure-blooded Chinese man who spoke eloquently of social isolation. He relayed information about the crescendo of Chinese immigration to Venezuela in their mid-1970s oil boom, reminiscent of the mid-19th century Chinese rush to California’s gold fields. On my second trip, I was truly 'in Rome with the Romans.' With Javier and friends accompanying me, I saw, tasted, and learned a lot more.

On the plane flight down, I happened to be sat next to a third-generation Chinese-Venezuelan man studying at New York’s Pace University. He was going back home to visit family, a clan that has long been involved in both the import/export and restaurant businesses. He noted authoritatively that South-American Chinese restaurants use more salt than usual. “Plantains, both green and ripe, are a major vegetable for Chinese restaurants,” he said, drawing a parallel to the heavy use of broccoli in United States takeouts. Another difference in Chinese food in Venezuela is the consistency of the egg rolls. Contrary to the traditional recipe, the cabbage is pre-cooked and drained before being stuffed into the wrapper.

One might imagine that Chinese food, famous for its lack of dairy products, might not fare well in a country whose citizens think nothing of munching on queso-y-queso (cheese-and-cheese) sandwiches. The national dish, however, pabellón criollo, is remarkably similar to a classic Chinese lunch of several dishes over rice. It consists of a mound of steamed white rice surrounded by shredded beef, black beans, tajada (fried ripe plantain), cheese, and griddle-fried, corn-meal patties called arepas. Another indigenous dish Chinese might love is fosforerra, a phosphorous laden thick orange broth made with vast quantities of heads-on shrimp.

There are lots of similarities between Asian and Venezuelan culture. Venezuelan Indians know how to make tea from the peel of passion fruit, a native of Asia, to calm down rowdy kids. Thousands of South Americas have faces that earn them the nicknames 'Chino' and 'China.' Facts like these bolster the theory that Chinese explorers landed in the sweet waters of the Caribbean well before Columbus and the Europeans. In 1999, there were a hundred Chinese restaurants listed in the Caracas phone book along with six Japanese restaurants and no other Asian eateries. The 2002 Yellow Pages lists one hundred sixty Chinese restaurants and eighteen Japanese restaurants. Thai food is just starting to get a toehold. Oddly, Restaurante Pizzería Mabel is listed amidst the Chinese eateries-–I will eat my hat with sesame sauce if someday I learn that Mabel sells Chinese-Italian novelties like 'chop suey pizza.'

Chinese restaurants, more often than not, housed in fake red and green pagodas, dot the cityscape. Their takeout menus all have a similar look--invariably red and green on folded white paper with images of temples, dragons, lotus blossoms, and fish. Is there only one printer in Caracas with a set of Chinese type? La Corona de Oro is one such typical Chinese-Venezuelan restaurant. Their claim: 'Servicio exclusivo de Chef y Mesoneros para sus Reuniones y Banquetes en su proprio hogar o sitio de reunion' can be summed up in two English words: 'catering available.' Other standbys include Kam Fung and Fat Chen in the San Bernardino neighborhood, and Jau Wah near the Chacao metro. There are plenty of all-you-can-eat buffets and down-in-the-mouth eateries that look straight out of old Times Square. There is even a rice shop named 'Pretty China,' in English!

One day, the Director of the Museum took me to Soberbia, a very special antique shop in the Floridita district. They had a portfolio of old menus, but nary a Chinese one in the lot. Still, I purchased a couple of menus from Caracas’ famously elegant French-Italian Restaurant Aventino (now defunct). Perhaps Aventino’s most renowned dish, Caneton à la Presse (pressed duck), which came with a souvenir numbered certificate, is somehow related to Cantonese pressed duck?

Venezuela is decades behind most 20th century Western-Chinese food trends. In most, first was Cantonese cuisine, followed much later by foods from Sichuan, Hunan, Shanghai, and elsewhere in China. Interest in Japanese food came simultaneously. After North Americans became accustomed to the foods of these countries, South Asian foods begin to take hold.

Ostentatious locals like to be seen eating in the trendiest of new spots: glass-walled sushi bars. Most of these pseudo-chic eateries are inauthentically Japanese. They proffer rather poor-looking rice rolls that look as if prepared by Madame Tussaud. If the progression of Asian eating trends abroad holds true to the above model, soon Venezuelans will experience the Vietnamese monsoon that swept through our major cities in the late 1990's. Will brazen Korean cooking follow next?

Takeout Chinese is popular in northern South America--where on earth is it not? Kowloon Chinese Restaurants appears to be the biggest chain in Caracas, and you can see their distinctive motor scooters zipping around all parts of the city. This is fast food at its utmost--greasy and thoroughly unsophisticated. The Pepsi-sponsored 'Family Kombo' comes with four orders of special fried rice, one order of sweet-and-sour chicken, one order of chop suey vegetables, two liters of soda, and cheesecake for desert.

Kowloon prints millions of splashy photographic menus and pamphlets, even bookmarks with their phone number emblazoned thereon. Kowloon’s printed egg roll containers (see their picture in the hard copy of this issue) announce the phone number, 0-800 China Ya, and their website, www. kowloongroup.com. It is full of bells, whistles, and even a children’s page called 'Kidloon.' Kowloon proudly crow’s about delivery in under forty-five minutes, so when you are hungry it is wise to follow their instructions: 'Haga Su Pedido Ya--Place your order now.'

Chinese food is newsworthy for Caraqueños y Caraqueñas (natives of Caracas) and an article in the Sunday paper of June 23, 2002 touted the new Oriental Milenario (Oriental Millennium) with a story on ginger and yin-yang, and a recipe for prawns with ginger and scallion.

Another trend-spotting magazine ran a feature article on Salón Cantón, the newest Chinese restaurant in town. The wok/grill is run by the Acon brothers, who have thirty years of experience in running Venezuelan-Chinese restaurants. Their idea was to eliminate the dark, mysterious Chinese kitchens about which Venezuelans, and non-Chinese the world over, love to joke. Salon Canton is done up in friendly pink and pastel tones without any cliché dragons, pagodas, or plastic clamshells. Sophisticated jazz and funk, and colored halogen, sets the ambiance.

Other features unique to Venezuelan Chinese restaurants include an open kitchen and a wide selection of Chinese, Italian and French wines. Salón Cantón house-specials are Mongolian Hot Pot, and Chicken or Beef Grilled with Mushrooms and Oyster Sauce. Peking Duck is popular and you can also order a tasting plate of Chicken with Honey, Sweet-and-sour Beef, and Shrimp with White Sauce. The kitchen staff is Chinese; the maître d’ and waiters Venezuelan.

El Universal, one of the main newspapers in Venezuela, has an 'In the Home/Recipes' column that frequently provides Chinese recipes. Here is one from September 5, 2002, translated into English. It is for Lumpias de Mariscos or Seafood Rolls, and from Chef Henry Moy of El Palmar restaurant; it is a recipe for two people. It uses ten sheets of dried rice paper, about four inches square, half-pound fresh shrimp, quarter-pound fresh scallops, quarter-pound fresh calamari, two cloves garlic finely chopped, two sprigs of cilantro also finely chopped, one teaspoon sesame oil, two tablespoons oyster sauce, one cup water, two teaspoon cooking oil, one teaspoon salt, one teaspoon sugar.

For its preparation, it says: 'Soak the dry rice paper in hot water until it is soft. Then drain the water and put it aside. Clean and finely mince the shrimp. Repeat this process with the scallops and squid. Heat the oil in the wok, add the garlic and sauté for two minutes. Add the seafood and the cilantro. Sauté for another three minutes until the shrimps turn a golden color. Add the oyster sauce, water, sesame oil, salt and sugar and mix well. Spread the rice papers out on a wet towel. Fill the centers, double the corners to the middles, roll, and seal the edges with water. Heat oil at a low temperature. Fry the rolls two to three minutes or until crispy. Place on paper towels to absorb the oil, and serve.'

To get to Caracas’ Chinatown, exit the Metro at Chacaito station and walk uphill on Avenida Principal El Bosque. Right away you will see a couple of Chinese spots with orange Formica trays and 'Horoscopo Chino' placemats. Push on, as the food gets exponentially better the further you go into El Avila, the gorgeous mountains that encase Caracas. You’ll pass gated homes, mosques, and Arabic restaurants in this 'Eastern' neighborhood. The road dead-ends after a twenty minute stroll, and there on the Western corner is Club Social Chino de Caracas, The Chinese Social Club of Caracas. Make your way past the Venezuelan guard at the Club’s classic red gates and turn left. Traverse the playground and enter Venezuela’s most authentic Chinese restaurant, Cantina Hong Kong.

A Chinese couple is in charge of cooking at this semi-hidden, working-class restaurant. The roast meats window and chopping block was empty, and we were the only customers on a weekday at lunchtime. One suspects that they do their best business when special events are going on at the Club. Our servers, a teenage boy and girl from Guangzhou, gave us the menu-a small photocopied piece of paper in Chinese and Spanish without even the name or address of the restaurant. The list had about forty variations on soup, noodle, tofu and rice.

We ate simply. The soup is made from soup base, with instant noodles and excellent thin-skinned wontons, the kind that are wrapped to resemble goldfish. Oddly, Wonton Soup is the same price with or without noodles. The winning dish is Cuajada de Soya con Pescado or Tofu with Fish.

The platter seemed ready to burst under the weight of eight large tofu squares balanced beneath glistening fermented black beans, sliced straw mushrooms, and scallions. The bits of dried fish cake wedged atop each tofu cake lent sophisticated texture to this complicated dish. Mike Pin remarked that it was not unlike the sauce on his mother’s sea bass recipe from Ding Hay, China. Cantina Hong Kong has excellent home-roasted chile oil and imported packets of soy sauce-–Jadin brand from Ridgewood, Queens, in the United States.

The Club is also home to a barber, a grocer open afternoons daily from 1:30 to 6, and there is a once-weekly market. On Sunday mornings from 6 to 11, the Club’s outdoor basketball court turns into a bazaar where locals sell all kinds of goods. Word has it there’s a brisk business in homegrown Chinese specialty vegetables nigh-on-impossible to find elsewhere.

The grocery inside the Club is the cleanest Chinese food store I have ever seen. The smell was heavenly, all sorts of fresh packaged goods like tiger bone composite (cheap at fifty-five bucks a tube) commingling with unblemished mushrooms and dried oysters without a speck of mold. The sparkling shelves were dust-free.

At another spic-and-span Chinese market down the block, I spotted a Venezuelan gentleman buying fermented red tofu. I inquired as to how he had learned about such a specific ingredient. He turned out to be a world traveling lawyer and artist who loved to cook Chinese food. He understood my incredulity about the immaculate market, and explained that Venezuelans are nearly fetishistic about cleanliness and daily showers. He went on to note that his favorite wonton noodle soup in the world is in Venezuela’s tiny industrial town of Guatire. I inquired if I was correct in my perception that there were substantially more United States fast food franchises in Venezuela than a few years ago. He concurred, adding: "More Wendy’s are coming – when economy goes down, fast food goes up.”

Coinciding with the Club’s weekly market, the dim sum restaurant next door serves specialty items like Shark’s Fin Dumplings, but on Sundays only. Lai King Restaurant, at Avenida Principal El Bosque at the corner of Avenida Santa Maria Quinta Maruri, is the reigning champion of Caracas’ alta cocina China or fine Chinese dining. They have 5-phone numbers, customized parking lot tickets, and napkins marked, Lai King El Bosque.

Lai King’s unique exterior is a mix of Venezuelan and Chinese architecture, with square, gold mesh doors. Cream-colored, the interior is laden with mirrors, padded chairs, and columns. A four-paneled lacquered bamboo screen at the entranceway is the only traditional Chinese decoration. The staff, and most Chinese-Venezuelans for that matter, come from in and around Guangdong, China. Most spoke Cantonese and many are timidly on their way to fluency in Spanish.

Lai King offers two different takeout menus, one with standard Westernized fare like chop suey, and one with more authentic and challenging Chinese offerings like goose or pig feet, tripe, and other variety meats like panzas and escodillas. Banquets can be ordered in a variety of prices, from dinner for four for 26,000 Bs ($32) to dinners for ten for 73.000 Bs ($90). Dim sum with five or six dishes costs about twelve dollars per person.

We ate tim sam (dim sum) at Lai King five times in two weeks. Tea, for which there is a small surcharge, is served not Chinese style; but in British cups with handles, saucers, and packets of sugar. Lai King’s Po Nay (fermented black tea) was not of the highest quality so it was sweet at first. After long steeping though, it developed Po Nay’s characteristic deep flavor. As for the traditional dim sum condiments, the hot pepper sauce was on the carts at the ready but we had to ask for things like vinegar, or oyster sauce for the turnip cakes. Powdered yellow mustard was mixed just for us.

We started with Lai King’s Wonton Soup. It was great, the clean-tasting homemade broth awash in baby Chinese broccoli (siu gai lan) and wonton skins stuffed with pleasantly resilient shrimp. Thrice we had platters of dao mew (snow pea leaves), served just like in China, fresh from the earth. The chlorophyll-laden platter comes oily, salty and piping hot, the garlic-tinged greens still crunchy. It is simply scrumptious.

At a neighboring table, a fashionable middle-aged Venezuelan couple started their Lai King experience with scallop-laden vegetable spring rolls. They smelled fantastic and we looked forward to learning more from these people-in-the-know. The rest of their order, though, was disappointingly plebian: Egg Drop Soup, Sweet-and-sour Chicken on a sizzling platter, and Fried Rice. We decided to stick to dim sum. Here is a list of the offerings, in order of their ranking from one to one hundred in this very informal scale of dim sum around the world.

88. Gwor Tip (fried pork and chive dumplings). The classic Chinese dumpling was fried tableside and the first server did a perfect job, watching and manipulating the dumplings during the entire process. Another time, an unschooled young server squooshed the dumplings with the spatula. Precious liquid squirted out and the dumplings took on oil, rating a score of only 74.
84. Ngow Pok Yeep (beef tripe). This was lovely, served al dente with a deep flavor enhanced by ginger. It would be better cooked with hot pepper.
76. Foog Jow (chicken feet). These were cut nicely, into thirds with only one toe per piece but that couldn’t rescue them from the thin sauce. 83. Pai Quat (pork spare rib tips). These were excellent if you catch them fresh out of the steamer and get a batch loaded with garlic and black beans.
83. Chicharrón, fried pork skin. They were justly popular – the Chinese and Venezuelan preparations nearly indistinguishable.
75. Woo Tao Go (taro cakes). It is great to see taro on a menu. Lai King’s unique formula has its merits but there’s too much sugar and not enough sausage nibs.
73. Seen Jook Gerng, (bean curd skin rolls). They were all pork and could use some more vegetables like bamboo shoot.
72. Har Mei Cherng (dry shrimp noodle). They were sorely lacking scallions.
68. Har Kow (shrimp dumplings). Surprisingly mundane – perhaps they save the best shrimp for the won tons.
67. Siu Mai (pork dumplings). These are made not with fresh ground pork, but with a prepared pork so they are oddly resilient, like Chinese meatballs.

Lai King’s friendly maitre d’ stopped in his tracks when we asked if they could griddle-fry arepas on the cart normally used for tableside frying of taro cakes, rice noodle rolls and other crisped dim sum. We agreed that arepas filled with Peking Duck, or maybe soy sprouts, gao wa (yellow chive) and fu yu (fermented tofu), were a cross-cultural creation worth investigating.

I had a lot of common interests with a friend’s-friend, Guillermo Hung, a sax-blasting, billiards-loving Venezuelan-Chinese restaurateur. We were both born in the Year of the Pig and love to practice the arts of Chinese food, all too often leaving others to clean up our mess. He plies the edges of food markets, stir frying oft-neglected belt fish for example, with aromatic black beans, chile and garlic. Venezuelans call us cocineros--revelers in life.

Young Hung learned the trade working in his parents Caracas restaurant, Hunan Garden. As an adult, he brought fame to Hunan Garden and other Chinese restaurants with live performances by his Venezuelan band. Hunan Garden did not really serve Hunanese food or even have a garden--it was just a propitious name. Before he left the Caracas fray for the wilds of Williamsburg, he ran a takeout restaurant out of his standard apartment kitchen, charging 3,500 Bolivares for a full-course meal, pick-up only, weekdays only. Guillermo typed, photocopied and distributed weekly menus in his neighborhood. Here, reprinted in its entirety, is one of his menus, translated for you, into English. It provides insight into Guillermo’s keen strategy of pleasing the local palate by accompanying the best regional cuisine with Chinese classics. It says: Chinese Food House; Telephone 0412.957.7251; Price: 3.500 Bolivares (roughly $5); Order after 10 am.

And it goes on to say:
Monday: Beef with scallion and garlic with oyster sauce, accompanied with broccoli and white rice cooked to perfection
Tuesday: Chicken curry with scallions and peppers, accompanied by potato salad, snow peas, and white rice
Wednesday: Chicken in garlic and honey sauce, accompanied with snow peas in garlic sauce and white rice
Thursday: Rice noodles with shredded beef, scallion and peppers in oyster sauce, accompanied with a fresh green salad with tomato
Friday: Beef in mushroom sauce accompanied with squash and white rice.

It is interesting to note that dishes do change seasonally, as do Guillermo’s hours of operation. Patrons know to order early as Chinese food house closed whenever the food ran out. His menus always contained an artistic touch, like an I Ching quotation. Guillermo gave me the original copy of one of his menus featuring an excerpt of a poem by his friend, the renowned Venezuelan man of letters, Miguel Márquez.

It is exceedingly rare to find a poem on any of the nearly ten thousand menus in my collection, and I immediately thought of the menu from Mon Lay Won which was featured in Flavor and Fortune’s Spring 2001 issue. Volume 8(1). I paid two hundred smackers for that simple paper takeout menu from the 1910s, partly because it contained the proprietor’s acrostic poem about menus, revealing quite a bit about his new life in America. Guillermo’s donation of his original 'menuscript' is equally important to my collection.

We were fortunate enough to meet Mr. Márquez after a poetry reading in Mercedes. He treated us to a reading that remains a highlight of the holiday. To tie up this story of Chinese food in Venezuela more eloquently than I could ever do, is a translation of the excerpt of Señor Márquez’ poem as it appears at the footer of Guillermo’s tiny takeout menu. Note that 'nacre' is the technical term for ‘mother of pearl,’ the inner lining of the of abalone, oyster, and other bivalves.

Jasmine Tea. For the end.
Ginger, scallion. Always on the table,
He forgetful nacre of a dream.
Miguel Marquez and his Lotus flower.

Do stay posted for my upcoming bulletin in another city. It will be about Chinese food in Copenhagen, Denmark and Gdansk, Poland. In the meantime, I am in production with a children's television show about collecting. While you are waiting for that show to air, look for my scraping the lotus leaf for the last bits of paper-baked fried rice at Yogee Noodle, 85 Christie Street, (212) 965-0615, quite possibly Manhattan Chinatown’s cleanest restaurant.
Mil gracias a Javier; Claudia; Julieta; Brenda; Team Malin; Mil Flerida,Claudia y amigas; Maria Elena; Gitanjli; Miguel; Ott; the graceful and gracious señoritas y señors de Lai King; Juan Lorenzo; Effi y Chi; y sobre todo a Timi.

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