They came by the thousands across the sea.
Men stacked into the infiernos flotantes for three months on the water.
Behind them was Asia, where they had left most worldly possessions. Still, some brought along precious tokens of their former life in the folds of their clothes- spices. Ginger. Soy. Others brought along memories of generations-old recipes.
This was the birth of Chifa. Or Nikkei. The story of how indigenous Peru fell in love with Asian immigrants and, in turn, their cuisine.
Two days off the plane in South America, I took an uber to Barrio Chino.
Chinatown in Lima, Peru.
The narrow streets flooded with people. They spilled over the sidewalk and into the car lane paying no attention to the blaring car horns coming from every direction. Our driver pointed ahead some blocks and told us in Spanish to get out and walk. There was too many people, he wasn’t wasting his time. Three city blocks to the restaurant.
We were looking for chifa- the Chinese Peruvian fusion that Peru had embraced as a national cuisine.
As early as the 1600s Asian men arrived in Peru, imported as slaves and servants, by way of Portuguese traders. The immigration from Asia hit a high in the mid-1800s with the Peruvian guano boom, where men worked night and day in coastal guano mines and sugar plantations.
While generically called “chino” (Chinese), their background was far more diverse. They came from China, yes, but also the Philippines, Japan, Indonesia- and even as far east as India and Sri Lanka.
While not technically slaves (slavery was abolished in 1854), they may as well have been. Living and working conditions were beyond terrible. Still, these men found companionship in an equally oppressed people- indigenous Peruvians.
As Peruvian women married Asian men, their cuisine also mixed together. Soy sauce met ceviche as Asian cuisine was introduced into the existing food-rich culture of Criollo (Spanish-influenced native cuisine).
Now, the business of chifa is a serious source of national pride.
I had sought out authentic chifa on the second day of our journey. It was good…like fresher Chinese food to the American tourist eye.
Here’s the problem: I was missing the point.
I was an outsider. I come from casseroles and mashed potatoes. I wasn’t born into this slice of centuries-old culinary history.
The key that brought me closer, and started my obsession with chifa, was a week spent eating pre-chifa with the indigenous peoples of the Sacred Valley.
Food of the Sacred Valley
My playground was the El Albergue in Ollantaytambo, a remote hotel on the way to Machu Picchu that produced everything it needed in its own backyard.
Unfortunately, while I was doing this:
My husband was hooked up to an IV fighting C Diff doing this:
“It’s only a good story because I survived.” He reminds me.
Still, I miss South America.
Especially the Sacred Valley. Especially in January.
The place was a food Eden.
Everything was ripe. Everything was in season.
In one mountain valley: pineapple farms. In another, root vegetables.
People made a living gathering flowers, fruits and vegetables growing freely by the side of the road and taking them to market. When the wind blew it funneled the sweetness of the strawberry fields and pre-rain ozone through the ancient towns.
I walked timidly into the fields alone and asked to buy strawberries from the farm laborers.
They answered me in Quechua, not Spanish. Good thing friendliness is universal.
I blindly followed them through fields dotted with deep red berries to a dirt-floored stable. An exchange of coins with an elderly matriarch bought me a heavy flat of strawberries.
Just one taste of a berry that fresh and sweet…
I don’t know what I ate that week. But I knew I had stumbled upon the raw resource for Lima’s spectacular cuisine.
Returning to the city, I realized how chifa is less of a “fusion food”- in the American sense- and more of a history of a nation. Chifa’s birth story is an estuary. Two peoples, five thousand years of history, colliding across an ocean.
And it thrives in the geography of Peru.
With the sea, the sacred valley, and every ingredient just a breath away, Peruvians fearlessly add any and all to their plate. One of Peru’s most popular dishes, the aeropuerto (“airport”), is a mix of fried rice and chow mein noodles with, as the name suggests anything else off the shelf that “lands in.”
Chifa continues to evolve as a living cuisine- the chef’s Lomo Saltado is on every restaurant menu. This is fusion elevated through the availability of quality ingredients and the total embrace of cultural appreciation.
Back at Maeva’s Coffee…
Did Peru’s 3,800 available potato varietals make this Welsh/Scottish girl a little jealous?
Am I craving farm-ripe strawberries in January?
Does my knowledge of South American cuisine even remotely scratch the surface of the last 500 years of global economic history that changed five thousand years of indigenous culture?
No. No, I don’t know much about Peruvian cuisine. But it left a mark on my heart.
So if you see spring rolls filled with sweet potato noodles or Causa Limeña show up on in the case at Maeva’s Coffee, it’s me in the kitchen hoping to share a piece of this history with you.