Chifa, the culinary fusion of noodles and chili peppers

Among the wide selection of Peruvian gastronomy and cuisines offered by the Andean country, there is one that is very characteristic: the chifa. Find out more about it.

Chifa, the culinary fusion of noodles and chili peppers
Arroz chaufán. Photo by Louis Hansel / Unsplash

When talking about Peru, the first thing that comes to mind is the majestic citadel of Machu Picchu. This is followed by images such as the famous Nazca lines and Cusco, the ancient capital of the Inca Empire. However, when you explore the streets - and mainly the restaurants of Lima - you find a culinary diversity similar to that of Mexico.

From Arequipa to Loret and from Lima to Madre de Dios, the traveler will lack the palate to taste every dish and drink. It is not for nothing that Peruvian gastronomy was distinguished by the Organization of American States when it was named Cultural Heritage of the Americas for the World, and within this wide selection of cuisines offered by the Andean country, there is one that is very characteristic: the chifa.

The precise origin of the word "chifa" is unknown; however, some relate it to the Mandarin terms "chi" and "faan", which means "to eat rice". Others have a different point of view and believe that the word arose from the term "chao fan", which is "fried rice".

In the mid-19th century, there was a strong migration of Chinese to Peru due to the liberation of black slaves. The objective was to supply the labor force in the haciendas of the Peruvian coast. Most of them were originally from the states of Guangdong and Sichuan, especially from the city of Guangzhou. This migration brought benefits for both the State and the contractors. However, due to their immigrant status, they suffered mistreatment and went through a state similar to slavery.

After eight years they were released and most of them migrated to the big cities in search of job opportunities. It was here that the chifa, a physical space for eating and a culinary trend, was born. The accelerated growth of the Asian communities demanded a taste reminiscent of their origins, which led them to develop a new cuisine. Since they did not have the exact ingredients for the preparation of their dishes, they began to supply them with some local ingredients. This produced the fusion of two important culinary lines: Peruvian and Chinese.

By the 1920s, the capital already had a new and rapidly growing social class. This brought considerable changes to both the structure of society and the Peruvian culinary tradition. Over the next 30 years, the architecture and organization of Lima, but especially of Capon Street, would be considerably transformed. The signs of stores and establishments were invaded by Chinese characters. In any restaurant, you could find anything from the famous chicha morada -a corn fermentation sweetened with pineapple, quince, and apples- to oolong tea.

Pisco sour cocktail recipe
Pisco sour cocktail recipe. Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

Chifa is the fusion of two culinary lines: Peruvian and Chinese

The first record of a chifa in the capital dates back to 1921, under the name of "kuong tong". This caused a chain reaction and similar places opened in the Barrios Altos. Little by little the Peruvian bourgeoisie fell in love with the new culinary fusion and made it their own. The influence of Asian ingredients reached such a degree that the native housewives of the country began to incorporate ingredients such as soy sauce, ginger, Chinese chives, and noodles to the Lima table. Once this new way of cooking was adopted by the locals, its evolution was constant to the point of being considered a fundamental part of Peruvian gastronomy.

Within the wide range of flavors and ingredients, you can find some dishes that distinguish chifa cuisine. One of the most popular is arroz chaufán, which is fried rice, vegetables, meat, and eggs. Another typical dish is the combined dish: rice and noodles sautéed separately and served with fried wantán. This is made with a thin dough that is filled with pork, although versions can be found prepared with beef. To accompany the food, the Chinese did not forget one of the most representative beverages of Asia: tea.

Among the most common infusions is jasmine. It is usually served to accompany the meal or at the end of it. Such was the evolution of the chifa cuisine that one of the Peruvian drinks was also transformed: the famous pisco sour. The only thing that was added to modify it was a bit of litchi. All this also brought a change for Asian cuisine: it was given by integrating Peruvian ingredients such as rocoto, chili sauces, and lemon juice.

Currently, Peru and Lima are world-renowned for their culinary tradition. Peru's dynamism allows its cuisine to evolve day by day. Any traveler -and even a local- has the opportunity to experience new flavors and seasonings. Like language, food is a response to the human need to express and remember. It is an element that transforms over time and holds in its most basic ingredients the deepest memories of the human being.