LIMA, Peru – As the smells of rice, spices, pineapple and beef float in the steam wafting from the pans, Félix Loo shakes his wok in the scorching heat of the kitchen, in the middle of the hottest season of the year in the Peruvian capital.
Loo is the head chef at Madam Tusán, one of the most exclusive Peruvian-Chinese restaurants in Lima, where the 29-year-old Cantonese cook uses culinary fusion to join the deep knowledge of a traditional Chinese cook and the creativity of a modern Peruvian chef.
“The secret to cooking is to love what you do. When you’re annoyed, nothing comes out right. Your heart has to want to cook,” said Loo, who has worked in three of Lima’s top Peruvian-Chinese fusion restaurants, known locally as chifas.
Loo was sent from Canton, China, to Peru at age 16 by his parents because he refused to study, accepting his calling in the kitchen by taking a job at a cousin’s restaurant when he was 13.
“I’m not an expert: I learn new things every day and I always use Peruvian ingredients,” said Loo, who helped create the menu at Madam Tusán, which is owned by Gastón Acurio, one of the most renowned Peruvian chefs in the world.
Loo’s success story represents a continuation of the wave of Chinese immigration to Peru that can be traced to the arrival of 100,000 workers between 1849 and 1874.
And chifas are the restaurants that best display the fundamental characteristics of Peruvian cuisine – the constant innovation of the mixing of flavors; the ingredients’ aromas and textures; and the use of a broad range of ingredients native to Peru and inherited from other countries, including China.
Chifas popped up in several cities along the Peruvian coast, where Chinese immigrants arrived to work, mainly on farms, under slave-like conditions.
Those restaurants first appeared in the 1930s and have since spread throughout the country, with their fried rice, stir-fried noodles, fried wontons and other classic dishes that receive a Peruvian twist.
There isn’t a neighborhood in Lima, an ever-sprawling metropolis of nine million, or many other cities in Peru that’s without a busy chifa.
Though there is no official data, 10 years ago it was calculated that there were 4,000 chifas employing 32,000 in Lima, according to statements made to Peru’s El Comercio newspaper by Jorge Manini Chung, the president of the Peru-China Association’s Business Committee.
A dynasty of flavor
Peru’s chifa experience is unique.
Whether it’s found in a poor neighborhood or the fanciest restaurant or whether diners use chopsticks or a knife and fork, Peruvian-Chinese food is one of the variants of this Andean country’s cuisine, which is experiencing an international boom.
The term chifa comes from the Mandarin expression “Let’s eat,” said Humberto Rodríguez Pastor, a Peruvian anthropologist and university professor who has been researching the history of the Chinese in Peru for the last 35 years. “
We’ve gotten so used to this food that there are certain dishes that have become a part of the Peruvian identity,” Rodríguez Pastor said.
“For example, we make fried rice, which is the most emblematic chifa dish, on a daily basis,” he added.
Fried rice or stir-fried noodles with chunks of vegetables and chicken or beef, saltado, are two staples of the Peruvian diet, prepared at home regularly. They’re also the most popular dishes at chifas.
But what’s behind Peru’s passion for a cuisine that’s not 100% Peruvian? “It’s the patient teaching of the Chinese, who have educated us to eat their food,” Rodríguez Pastor said. He added chifas have existed in Peru for about 80 years, but they became commonplace in the 1990s, when the country’s economy improved.
“The children of Chinese workers were the first generation of chifa regulars,” Rodríguez Pastor said. “And Peruvian-Chinese weddings offered a two-course culinary education: Peruvian food for lunch and Chinese food for dinner.”
From Peruvian ‘dinner spots’ to neighborhood chifas
Aida Tam Fox, a Peruvian professor, researcher and author of the award-winning book “Vocabulary of the Lima Kitchen,” is the daughter of a Chinese-Peruvian marriage and grew up with her mother cooking during the day and her father at night.
“I am a tusán,” said Tam Fox, referring to the term used for the first generation children of Chinese and Peruvian parents.
“My mom was Peruvian and my father was from Canton. In my house, we ate Peruvian food in the afternoon and my father cooked dinner. I remember he used to make a delicious stir-fried beef.”
Stir-fried beef is prepared with tender strips of beef loin, which are marinated and fried in a special soy sauce, known in Peru as sillao.
Restaurants known as “dinner spots” preceded chifas in Lima’s lower-income neighborhoods, Tam Fox said.
“They were Chinese households where you could eat cheaply,” she said.
“They would set up a long white table, and starting at six or seven o’clock, they would welcome customers. There were only two options: a vegetable dish known as sancochao and noodles with stir-fried beef,” recalls Tam Fox, whose father also owned a chifa in the wealthy coastal city of Ica, 325 kilometers (201 miles) south of Lima.
According to a 2009 survey of Peruvian eating habits conducted by Arellano Marketing for the Peruvian Society of Gastronomy (APEGA), 20% of Peruvians prefer chifa when eating out.
Lima’s Chinatown, known as Calle Capón, is home to the city’s most popular chifas. The restaurants cater to all budgets.
The standard lunch dish with soup or a fried wonton and a main dish costs, on average, $10 Peruvian nuevos soles (US$3.70). In lower-income areas on the outskirts of Lima or in the provinces, the price for a similar combo can cost half as much.
A ticket out of poverty
Tourists and Peruvians – likely attracted by the food’s great taste and inexpensive prices – flood chifas nationwide.
Elvis Sánchez, a 17-year-old who works at the “Yu Fun” chifa in the Lima section of Ate, aspires to make a living in the restaurant industry.
"I work Monday to Saturday dicing vegetables,” said Sánchez, who moved from the town of Jaén, 1805 kilometers (675 miles) north of Lima in 2009 to find a job in the booming Peruvian food industry as a way to escape poverty. “I also clean the dishes, but my idea is to learn and be a chef in the future.”
Sánchez is saving his money to attend a culinary school in Lima so he can get a high-paying job at one of the city’s top Peruvian restaurants.
“If you don’t go out and make a living for yourself, then you are going nowhere,” he said.