It’s a romantic, historical epic — worthy of Peruvian-born, internationally famous author Isabel Allende’s blockbuster novels. But it is not fiction, it is history; in brief, a complex tale that really covers multiple continents and many characters.
Chinese coolies came to Peru as indentured servants, around 100,000 of them between 1849 and 1874; now their descendants including some of the most successful Peruvians have formed a Chinese community, refreshed with ongoing immigration, that is different from that of other countries. And, they founded and maintain a cuisine that is as Peruvian as any in this diverse country, even though it carries a strong charge from its origin in Chinese culture and ingredients.
While Chinese immigrants helped create dishes that are symbols of Peru, such as lomo saltado, they also created an alternative to those creole dishes that are both Peruvian and Other. While lomo saltado is simply Peruvian now, at the same time nothing is more Peruvian than arroz chaufa, fried rice, and nothing is more Chinese.
This double sided cuisine, both Peruvian and Chinese, is called chifa, which is also the name for restaurants that serve the cuisine. This word is a form of the Cantonese words for “to eat”, chi fan, or more appropriately “to eat rice”, a food which the Chinese have widely made popular in Peru. The name illustrates the importance of this historical swashbuckling and romantic tale since the Chinese has been completely assimilated into Peruvian Spanish, along with other Chinese words such as siyao, for soy sauce, and kión, for ginger.
In contrast, in the United States — which also had a large immigration of Chinese workers at the same time — the English words soy sauce and ginger are used, and the cooking of the US Chinese immigrant community is simply called “Chinese food”. Though American as apple pie, Chinese food in the US will always be seen as the cooking of strangers, while in Peru it is almost as Peruvian as Mama Ocllo and Manco Kapac, the Inca Eve and Adam.
In this simple difference of a name is an enormous gulf of history, two different worlds and two different stories not unlike the South America and California of Allende’s historical fictions.
Both foods, the Peruvian and the American Chinese cuisines, are hybrids and both are widespread. However, there is the difference that Peru has opened its gates and embraced even the Chinese names making them part of itself while in the US a conceptual wall was built such that the cuisine is separate but its words and concepts must be in English translation.
Barbara Voss, who studies the archeology of Overseas Chinese communities, says that the wider society (especially the US wider society Bernard Wong argues) tends to see Chinese communities among them as little enclaves, separated from the main-stream society by walls of Asiatic tradition as if they were little, unchanging foreign islands plopped down for awhile in the sea of another people. However, Voss finds that the archeology runs counter to this dominant idea of separation. When excavating these communities scholars find the remains of lots of cultural exchange over the boundaries. But the perception of a strong boundary remains.
This is where the Peruvian Chinese community was and is different. It did not face the cultural and social exclusion the Chinese immigrants faced in the United States. Life was still hard in both cases, but Peruvian Chinese coolies quickly intermarried with other Peruvians, converted to local Catholicism, and built strong social ties with other Peruvians around finding godparents for their children.
While the US for a period tried to exclude Chinese from immigrating to its shores, Peru, at the end of the coolie period, began to welcome more Chinese immigration. The new immigrants tended to become merchants. They found in Peru a mixed Chinese community that was spread out among other Peruvians, rather than a group of Overseas Chinese who tended to live in their own Chinatowns. They also found the Peruvian community itself was upwardly mobile.
As a result, in Peru’s cities, neighborhood stores tended to be run by Chinese immigrant merchants, and other immigrants to the city tended to live near people of mixed Chinese parentage, especially in the booming coastal cities, such as Lima, that were at the beginning of an century of enormous growth from migration.
Chinese Peruvians not only opened stores, they also began to offer food in neighborhood eateries. The first Chifa seems to have appeared in Lima in the early years of the twentieth century.
This mix of an upwardly mobile Chinese population that was integrated with its Peruvian neighbors, even though they still faced racism, seems to have been the critical factor that led to Peruvians adopting the Chinese words as part of what the Chinese brought with them as the food expanded.
As Peruvians returned to other cities with an experience of working and living on the coast, they brought a taste for Chifa with them. Today it is one of Peru’s most popular foods. Chifas are found in urban neighborhoods small and large.
People love the food, the ti pa kay–cubes of generally breaded, deep fried chicken in a soy-based sauce, chi jau kay–cubes of deep fried chicken in a black-bean oyster sauce, and kam lu wantán, a deep fried wonton with a sweet and sour sauce made from Tamarind, among others. As you can see the names often are Chinese but they are widely understood by Peruvians, even when other Spanish speakers scratch their heads.
Some chinese dishes, such as lomo saltado or tallarin saltado, escaped Chifa and became simply Peruvian, part of the almost everyday experience of urban Peruvians rich and poor, while Chifa remained something one ate in places with Chinese decoration that carried the allure of China, all the while being deeply Peruvianized.
Chifa is part of Peru and part of Cuzco, especially the Cuzco outside the tourist core. Who knows, maybe one day Isabel Allende will write this historical romance of how fried rice, arroz chaufa, went from something indentured servants, working as almost slaves on coastal plantations made for themselves, to something eaten in all social levels of Peru’s cities and, though foreign sounding, part of Peru’s own national cuisine.
Barbara L. Voss, 2005 The Archaeology of Overseas Chinese Communities. World Archaeology 37(3):424-439, 2005.