Peruvian Lomo Saltado Actually Comes From Chinese Immigrants

This week, in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, food writer Carlos Olaechea traces the origins of Chinese-Peruvian cuisine and shares his recipe for lomo saltado.

Growing up in Miami, my dad raised me with the idea that almost anything available in this country had its superior Peruvian equivalent. If I wanted to decorate a tree and sing “Jingle Bells” at Christmas, he’d steer me toward building an elaborate nativity scene and caroling songs about feeding baby Jesus sweet soup. Instead of Bagel Bites and Carvel ice cream cake for my birthday, he’d order platters of triple sandwiches and thickly frosted yellow cake concealing generous layers of manjar blanco (what Peruvians call dulce de leche). And any time we wanted Chinese food, we’d always end up having chifa.

Chifa is what Peruvians call Chinese food. It’s also how Peruvians refer to Chinese restaurants. In fact, the word embodies an entire multisensory experience, so it probably won’t be too long before Peruvians use the word as a verb, too.

This uniquely Peruvian term is said to have originated from the Cantonese phrase 饎飯, which roughly translates to “cooked rice” (or some variation of that). The Chinese dictionaries I consulted couldn’t identify the phrase, but they were able to parse out words like “food,” “rice,” and “to cook.” Regardless of what chifa actually means, there is a similar word for “fried rice,” chaufa, which looks like this: 炒饭.

According to Dr. Luis Yong, the owner of the famous San Joy Lao chifa in Lima, Spanish-speaking limeños would overhear their Cantonese-speaking neighbors saying this phrase and soon began using a Hispanicized version of it to refer to Chinese food and the businesses that sold it.

Although it refers to Chinese food, the dishes that make up chifa are far removed from anything you would find in China. It’s also markedly different from the hybridized Chinese takeout you find throughout the United States and has little similarity to other hybridized Chinese-Latino cuisines. This uniquely Peruvian style of Chinese food incorporates Peruvian ingredients and is altered to suit Peruvian tastes, while also playing into the orchidaceousness that many Peruvians of the time associated with East Asia.

What this translates to is a repertoire of flamboyant, meaty specialties swimming in intensely seasoned sauces. Dishes feature flavors, textures, and ingredients that are uncommon in Peruvian creole cuisine: sticky fruit-studded gravies, land and sea animals on the same plate, and dainty garnishes of boiled quail’s eggs. This makes trips to a chifa feel like a culinary adventure to the average Peruvian, let alone Joe Shmoe. Additionally, dishes maintain Hispanicized versions of Cantonese names, adding to chifa’s colorful mystique.

You’d start with a bowl of fuchifú (bean thread soup), for instance, and accompany your chi jau kai (crispy chicken in black bean sauce) and kam lu wantan (fried wontons smothered in sweet and sour sauce) with a heap of chaufa (again, fried rice). This being Peru, the whole meal is accompanied by tiny spoonfuls of rocoto chili sauce and washed down with Inca Kola, the national soft drink.

Many Chinese-Peruvian dishes have become so popular over the decades that they’ve migrated over to creole buffets, cevicherias, and rotisserie chicken joints. Go to any Peruvian restaurant and you’ll be sure to find chaufa on the menu. This fried rice dish derives its name from the Chinese chao fan (literally “fried rice”) and is not too different from the Chinese original—at least superficially.

This makes sense for a few reasons. The first Chinese immigrants to the Andean country reportedly arrived in October 1849 from the southern province of Guangdong, which was known as Canton back then. By 1874 Chinese people in Peru numbered in the tens of thousands.

At first they worked in the sugarcane and cotton plantations that dotted the coast. Later arrivals worked in the construction of railroads connecting the capital city of Lima to other towns in the Andes. Most worked as contract laborers collecting guano on offshore islands. The conditions on these islands were torturous, and the Chinese were treated particularly worse than other immigrant groups.

By some accounts, it was the early chifas in Lima that served as support networks for many Chinese immigrants during these times and provided assistance in breaking free of the abusive labor contracts. Those who decided to stay in Perú were known as tusán, and many settled around Capon Street in central Lima, which became the city’s official Chinatown.

As the tusán community began to gain recognition in Lima society, many non-Chinese Peruvians began venturing into Calle Capón to sample the food at places like Kuong Tong, which opened in 1921, or the aforementioned San Joy Lao, which opened in 1934 (or 1927, depending on who you ask). The first non-Chinese Peruvians to flock to chifas were members of Lima’s aristocracy, who frequented these restaurants to affirm their sense of worldliness. As a result, many of the chifas throughout Peru are pretty lavish.

On my last visit to Lima, it was sometimes difficult to distinguish some chifas from the city’s many baroque casinos. As a kid, my dad even told me how it was commonplace for chifas to offer private dining rooms or cubicles to their guests, and how some of them even had courtyard gardens with fishponds. These extravagances have positioned chifas as particular institutions within our culture. Going out for chifa is usually a special occasion for many Peruvian families.

Dishes feature flavors, textures, and ingredients that are uncommon in Peruvian creole cuisine: sticky fruit-studded gravies, land and sea animals on the same plate, and dainty garnishes of boiled quail’s eggs.

But not all chifa experiences are fancy affairs. As with other foods, chifa trickled down Lima’s highly structured social hierarchy to the working classes. If you don’t mind the barebones ambiance, you can enjoy an inexpensive plate of roast pork in sweet tamarind sauce or steamed fish with black bean sauce at one of the more lowbrow chifas del barrio, or neighborhood chifas.

Photo by Ty Ransom

Currently there are over 6,000 chifas in Lima alone. Some sources claim that there are more chifas in Peru than any other type of restaurant. Perhaps the greatest indicator of chifa’s importance in Peruvian culture is the assimilation of many Cantonese culinary terms into Peruvian Spanish. Other Latinos can find it confusing to speak to Peruvians about food when we use such words as kión for ginger (instead of the standard gengibre) and sillau for soy sauce (instead of the standard salsa de soya).

One of the most celebrated Peruvian dishes after ceviche also has its origins in chifa: Lomo saltado, with its balance of Peruvian and Cantonese elements, is perhaps the strongest (and most delicious) example of the ingrained Chinese food culture in Peru. Furthermore, the technique for making this stir-fry is quintessentially Chinese, as is the addition of soy sauce. The kick of ají chili, the nuttiness of ground cumin, and the slices of juicy tomatoes against crisp French fries all represent the combination of European and indigenous traditions that form the foundation of Peruvian cuisine.

Add a sprinkle of chopped cilantro and a scoop of white rice, and you have the Peruvian melting pot on a plate. And that melting pot as we know it—where would it be without chifas and the Chinese immigrants who gave Peru its kaleidoscopic culinary imagination?

Do you love Peruvian food, too? Share your favorite dish in the comments below.

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