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Chifa is a term used in Peru to refer to Chinese cooking in which many of the ingredients originally used in China were substituted by those available in Peru due to a lack of ingredients and as a cheaper alternative to using expensive imported ingredients. Chinese immigrants came to Peru mainly from the southern province of Guangdong and particularly its capital city Guangzhou in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They settled for the most part in the city of Lima. The term Chifa is also used to define a restaurant where this type of food is served. This Chinese-Peruvian food has become one of the most popular types of food in Peru.
The term chifa may come from the mandarin 酒饭 jiǔfàn which means food and drink. However, the jiǔfàn etymology is highly speculative and disputed. An alternate origin of the name "chifa" is as a corruption of the Mandarin phrase "chi fan" (吃饭, eat rice, eat meal) which is supported by a similar corruption, "chaufa" in the Peruvian colloquial language, which should actually be "chao fan" (炒饭, fried rice) in Mandarin.
Despite the fact that the founding element of the Andean Chinese community has been Cantonese, Mandarin words were used in the creation of the name "chifa" as Mandarin "chi" in Cantonese is either "hek" (吃), "sik" (食). This trivium highlights the prestige of Mandarin (not yet the standard official language of China) in a 19th and early 20th century overseas Cantonese community.
As the Chinese immigrants in Peru economically progressed they imported a limited number of ingredients from the home of their ancestors, China, to keep producing a more authentic version of their cuisine. Additionally they began to plant a variety of Chinese vegetables with seeds imported from China. However, due to a lack of ingredients the Chinese were not able to prepare their cuisine in the authentic manner of their homeland.
Around 1920 the first Chinese Peruvian restaurants were opened in Lima and were given the name Chifa. The Limean aristocracy was amazed by the bittersweet sauce, the chaufa rice, the soups, and other dishes of the ancient cuisine. From that moment on wealthy Limeans became fascinated by Chifa, to an extent that in some regions of the country there are more chifas than creole restaurants.
Additionally, Peruvian chefs began to use products used in traditional Chinese cooking such as ginger, soy sauce, scallions, and a variety of other ingredients which began to make their way into daily Limean cuisine.
There are different accounts on the development of chifa restaurants in Lima, the Peruvian capital, such as the following:
"Why is the Chinatown of Lima near the central market called Capon? Because on Ucayali Street pigs, bulls, sheep and goats were fattened to be made more appetizing. Near Capon Street there was a piece of land known as Otaiza, which was rented by a group of French free of the [indenturement] contract, free to chart their own horizon doing what they best knew how to do: cooking and merchanting (...) Capon turned into the birthplace of Chinese food and of the first Peruvian chifas, a blessing from the sky. Soon all of Lima comes to eat at Ton Kin Sen, to Thon Po, to Men Yut, and to San Joy Lao where there was even dancing to a live orchestra. (...) At one time or another, nobody knows when, Chinese restaurants began to become known as Chifa. For some this word was derived from the Chinese ni chi fan or "Have you eaten yet". Soon later would come the dish chau fan (fried rice), and finally, chaufa, a dish that comes with almost every chifa meal."
León, R., 2007 pp.134-136.color
As stated, the history of chifa is deeply rooted in the development of the chinatown of Lima, originally prepared by unhealthy or unsavory methods, but which has become focal point in cultural, artistic, commercial, and especially gastronomic interest. The chinatown is located near Capon Street in Barrios Altos, in the Historic Centre of Lima.
Peruvian chifa is very similar to Chinese food that is found in other parts of the world. Chinese food in Peru is enjoyed by all socio-economic levels, as evident by the ability to find Chifas directed towards those with a more ample budget and seeking a more refined atmosphere whereas chifas de barrio are directed towards a different social strata and do not have the same level of atmosphere and are directed towards consumers accustomed to the type of food which they serve. Currently, in the city of Lima there are over 6,000 chifa restaurants.
Typical chifa dishes
- Chaufa Rice (Fried Rice)
- Fried Noodles (Chow Mein)
- Chijaukai chicken (Sesame chicken)
- Tipa Kay Chicken (Sweet and sour chicken)
- Airport (A mixture of Chow Mein together with Fried Rice)
- Wantan Soup
- Kam Lu Wantan (Wontan stir fried with Sweet and sour sauce and vegetables)
- Lomo saltado (Stir Fried Beef)
- Steamed Chicken Soup (Chinese style chicken soup)
- Fu chi fu Soup (Egg drop soup)
- León, Rafo (2007). Lima Bizarra. Antiguía del centro de la capital. 2da edición. Lima-Perú: Aguilar. ISBN 978-9972-848-17-9.
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