Chifa? Chinese food in Peru
We’ve always believed that the fastest path to another country is through food. During our lives we haven’t visited that many countries, still, we feel like we have had a piece of each place every time we had a taste of their cuisine. Especially if that experience was mediated by a person from there. Today we are gonna tell you about that time in Shanghai, when a dear friend made us take a little detour to Peru without even leaving China. All this just for you to eventually find out that you actually learned something cool through our usual, light-hearted anecdotes.
During one of our usual stops in Shanghai, we got acquainted with this guy from Peru. And since we like to socialize while sitting at the table, our friendship grew meal after meal, so that five restaurants later we were already great friends. The first thing we noticed was that he only ordered fried rice, and never missed to bring that out through his usual exaggerated glorifications of that dish. Only after a few times, he revealed to us that there was a deeper reason behind that habit of his. He missed his homeland very much and the Chinese fried rice was the only thing able to make him feel at home again. Yes, Chinese fried rice tasted like Peru for him. Then he proceeded to explain more in detail, revealing a world that was still unknown to us, and that changed our perception of simple dishes like fried rice. To the extent that we can’t help but feel a little bit in Peru every time we eat a bite of it.
Now we’re gonna share with you what he narrated to us. So, take a seat, grab your favourite mug, and prepare for the next part, because we’re about to talk about the deep relation between Peruvian cuisine and the Chinese culinary tradition. In a word, the “chifa”.
The term chifa refers to a specific culinary tradition developed in Peru, especially in the capital Lima, and shortly after spread everywhere in the country. The etymology of the term hints at its distant origin, and is said to derive from Mandarin “chī fàn” (吃饭), which literally means “eating rice”, but is normally used referring to the act of having a meal or simply eating some food. This type of cuisine is said to owe its birth to the cultural influx brought by the thousands of Chinese immigrants who arrived in Peru between 1800 and 1900, most of which came from the province of Guangdong, already famous for having inspired the Cantonese rice, appreciated in many Western countries. In Peru, Chinese people struggled to find their usual ingredients in the local market, having to experiment with the products available in that new different environment to prepare their favourite dishes. This resulted in an entirely new type of fusion cuisine, precisely chifa, which mixes cooking styles and recipes that are traditionally Chinese with the staples of the Peruvian cuisine. After the opening of the first chifa restaurant in a small Chinatown in Lima in 1920, this cuisine started climbing all the rankings of the most appreciated food in Peru, breaking through the hearts of the local population. Today Peruvian people feel so emotionally attached to chifa food that they openly embrace it as part of their national culture and of their historical heritage.
Counter-intuitively, though, chifa didn’t spill outside the borders of the Chinatown as a “humble food” as many other cuisines inspired by immigrants did. On the opposite, it was first noticed by the Limeña aristocracy, impressed by the great combination of flavours, and the perfect harmony between the local ingredients and the savoury Chinese sauces. There was a great demand by wealthy people for more chifa preparations, and in some parts of the country, chifa restaurants outnumbered the creole restaurants serving local cuisine. Today, in the sole city of Lima, more than 6,000 chifa restaurants can be found, which every day put a smile on the faces of their customers regardless of who they are (from the most sophisticated palates to the simple gluttons). At the same time, its fame has grown so much that the same has spread all around Latin America bringing more people closer to Chinese cuisine in general.
But what’s this chifa all about? Maybe rice? Fried rice as said before? Well… not exactly. Perhaps it started that way because fried rice is the most basic Chinese preparation. You can have your version literally everywhere in the world, and for people like our friend in Shanghai it’s like comfort food that reminds you of your grandma when far from home. But after that, chifa evolved, becoming more a food theme that encompasses all those Chinese cooking techniques applied to authentic Peruvian ingredients infused with oriental flavours and textures. We can refer to them as “chifa food” in general.
Key elements of the Chinese tradition that remain relevant in chifa food are the combinations of rice, meat, and vegetables. But other distinguishable ingredients make their appearance too, like wontons, noodles, bean sprouts, soy sauce, and even the sweet and sour sauce. From the Peruvian side, we find a series of ingredients that benefit from the versatility of the Chinese recipes, and easily find their own place in there. This is especially true for guinea pigs, different types of fish and seafood, but also wild game meat like pacas or peccaries (a type of wild pig).
Examples of this fantastic cross-cultural encounter are dishes like the “tallarin saltados”, also known as Peruvian stir-fried noodles. This preparation in particular takes Chinese noodles, soy sauce, and the traditional flambéing techniques and mixes them with the local varieties of onions, tomatoes, and peppers. The preparation is as easy as is good the result. Differently from what you might expect, this dish is associated with conviviality, often prepared in large quantities for friends to share. We’ve been told that what is left over is even better the next day, but as far as we know, once they have been served on the table, usually no hostages are taken and not a single noodle has never lived enough to see the sun rise.
This concludes our quick excursus of the evolution of Chinese cuisine in Peru, and how it eventually became a signature trait of the local culture. This was a story about food, places, but also emotions and lots of nostalgia. Food can beat any cultural and geographical barrier, have access to new places, and mix with the local traditions, giving birth to new, mouth-watering encounters. At the same time, when those same locals visit the places that gave birth to their favourite food, they experience a déjà vu-like sensation. The flavours and tastes they find there feel warm and familiar. In reality, that looked like normal fried rice for us, but for our Peruvian friend it probably struck a chord, like an old photo of his distant homeland.