During his show on Panama, Anthony Bourdain observed that Chinese food somehow gets shinier the further west one goes. He might also have mentioned that it changes in other ways throughout the western hemisphere too, on the whole, becoming less and less Chinese-like. In a similar way to Panama, to which Chinese laborers flocked to help build the eponymous canal, Peru experienced large-scale immigration of Cantonese mine workers during the latter half of the 19th century too, and still has the largest Asian population of any nation in South America. Largely isolated from its home country for the intervening century and a half, the Peruvian Chinese community, like many New World immigrant groups, developed its own distinct peculiarities.
Regular readers of this blog will know of our penchant for the immigrant groups of the Americas, where they came from, how and why they arrived, and how they went about creating their new and entirely unique cultures on foreign soils, often in the teeth of vicious discrimination from those who had arrived earlier. So it was for the Chinese in Peru. Principally from the Chinese province of Guangdong, these immigrants were not just coming for a short time to work, earn a living, and then return home. In a way that is almost unimaginable for us today, given the global mobility many of us have, those who journeyed to South America to work in its silver, copper and silicate mines had to virtually abandon any thought of ever seeing their homes again. It must have been all the harder without any of the comforts of home either – as traditional Cantonese ingredients were (mostly) unavailable in 19th-century Peru.
Culinarily, this isolation and a lack of familiar foodstuffs led to the development of an entirely Peruvian-Chinese phenomenon known as Chifa. Derived from a local corruption of the Mandarin “chi fan” or “eat rice”, chifa cuisine is characterized by somewhat curious ingredient pairings. In the most popular chifa dish, lomo saltado – a beef stir-fry, this manifests itself in the carbohydrate combo of rice and french fries, and the flavoring mix of soy sauce, red wine and spicy Peruvian yellow aji peppers. Purists may quibble that chifa is less fusion cuisine and more mish-mash food given the apparent clumsy pairing of local meat and potatoes with Cantonese stir-fry, but I, for one, find that lomo saltado actually offers the same salty, spicy, sour and sweet tastes typical of Chinese cooking, just with different ingredients.
Understandably popular among hard-working Cantonese miners, chifa cuisine was also a surprise hit among the higher echelons of Peruvian society, and though initially limited to Lima’s Barrios Altos, chifa restaurants soon began to spring up outside of Chinese neighborhoods too, eventually expanding across the capital (where there are now more than 6,000 chifa restaurants) to most parts of the country. Indeed, so popular has it become that today one can find Chifas, as they’re known, throughout the rest of South America. From Argentina and Chile all the way north to Venezuela, chifa cuisine is almost as well known as Peru’s other great gastronomic export, ceviche. Evidently, this trend is growing among the Yanquis too: Chef Jose Garces of Iron Chef America fame, opened a chifa-style eatery in Philadelphia recently, naming it, rather unimaginatively, Chifa.
On a visit to Argentina, Anthony Bourdain commented that the common Porteno carb combo of pizza and chickpea faina must have been invented by drunk people, and rice with fries would seem to fall into the same category. Sure, double starch is weird, but that doesn’t mean to say it’s not good, drunk or sober.
- 2 floury potatoes, sliced into 1cm (1/2 inch batons)
- 1/2 cup white rice
- 1/2 cup red wine
- 2-3 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 red bell pepper, sliced into 1cm (1/2 inch sticks)
- 6 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1lb shell, skirt or sirloin steak, cut into 1inch pieces
- 4-6 Peruvian aji peppers, sliced finely
- 2 tablespoons tomato puree or strained tomatoes
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar
- 1 teaspoon white pepper
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon onion powder (optional)
- oil for frying
- Marinade steak in red wine, white pepper, cumin and onion powder for up to 1 hour
- Boil rice until cooked, drain and allow to steam.
- Fry potato batons in oil until crispy and golden brown. Drain and keep warm in oven.
- Drain steak but reserve marinade.
- Heat wok or frying pan to high, add 1 tablespoon oil.
- Add red peppers and cook for two minutes. Add steak.
- Cook for two more minutes before adding garlic.
- Cook, stirring frequently, for another minute before adding tomato puree.
- Stir together well before adding marinade, soy sauce and vinegar.
- Cook for another minute, stirring regularly, until sauce has thickened and reduced slightly.
- Stir in aji peppers. Taste and correct seasoning (it shouldn’t need any salt, but you never know.
- Plate rice, french fries and beef stir-fry. Garnish with cilantro and, if you’re feeling brave, more aji peppers.