Stir-Fry Around the Globe: Lomo Saltado and the Chifa Tradition

By Amy, Binglei, Chutong, Mamie, Mengnan

When McDonald’s first opened in mainland China in 1990, many Chinese people in Shenzhen probably saw French fries for the first time–but what if you told those same people that Chinese dishes elsewhere actually include French fries? Such a dish is called Lomo Saltado, and it remains extremely popular today in Peru. We researched Lomo Saltado in the greater context of the chifa (吃饭) cuisine tradition in Peru, whose fascinating history begins with 19th century Chinese diaspora. Our analysis draws from knowledge of Chinese food in the U.S. and historical significances that we’ve learned in class. Of course, our learning wouldn’t be complete without the kinesthetic component, so we cooked the dish ourselves and reflected on our personal experiences with it. The results are fun, comforting, and much more organic than a calculated implant of the Golden Arches (no offense, McD).

Asian immigration in Latin America

Asians have a really long history in the Latin American region, starting with Filipinos in the 16th century.  Filipinos arrived in Latin America in the 16th century “as sailors, crews, prisoners, slaves, adventurers and soldiers during the Spanish colonial period of the Philippines” (Wikipedia).

Later, the 19th and 20th centuries were the peaks of the Asian immigration in Latin America. The major emigrants from Asia were “Chinese and Japanese; others were Korean Filipinos, and Indians” (Wikipedia). Most of them came to the Latin America as contract labor (coolies) or economic migrants (Dehart 21).

Chinese Peruvians

History of Chinese immigration in Peru

From 1847 to 1874, right after the slave trade became illegal in Peru, the country imported about “95,000 Chinese coolies for its sugar plantation” (Dehart 1). Most of these coolies were from southern China: Guangdong, Fujian, and Macaw (Wikipedia).

Great Britain was the first to experiment with exportation of Asian laborers under contract to their overseas colonies. In 1806, British ended the slave trade, but still need laborers for plantations in their overseas colonies. They first exported the Chinese, then Indians, to their colonies in Africa. Later, a lot of other European countries followed British ways to solve their labor problems after the termination of slave trade–this became the “coolie trade”, referring specifically to Chinese and Indians bound “under contract to provide service for a period of time” (Lesser).  At the beginning, the contract was a legal document “between a free person and an employer”( Lesser). Coolies were supposed to be paid during the period of contract, usually a combination of wages and in kind, such as food, clothing, and medical attentions (Dehart 5).  After completing the contract term, coolies could regain their total freedom. However, there was a huge gap between theory and practice. In fact, coolies were treated poorly in Peru. They did unskilled works as slaves did and received harsh punishment if they did not obey the planters. The planters would use “stocks, metal bars, leg chains or jails” to punish coolies, even executing them (Dehart 6). Coolies rebelled as well–they worked against the planters collectively by running away or committing suicide (Dehart 6). During the War of the Pacific, their situation began to improve once they were no longer needed for work on sugar plantations (Comercio). Although coolies regained their freedom, they were regarded as neither immigrants nor colonists (Dehart 4).

Other Chinese immigrants came to the Peru after came after the founding of Republic of China in 1912 and “the establishment of communist rule in 1949”, most because of political reasons (Wikipedia).

Chinese Peruvians today

After regaining their freedom, Chinese immigrants in Peru began to move to large coastal cities like Lima and Ica. They established their own neighborhoods in the city center area; these sections became known as Chinatown (Comercio). In Chinatown, these Chinese immigrants began to integrate in Peruvian society by starting their own small businesses, opening grocery stores like bodegas and restaurants like chifas to sell their traditional food. Gradually, they gained reputation for hard work and respect for neighbors (Comercio).

Having reached a certain threshold socioeconomic status, Chinese immigrants sent their children to the “best schools” to receive the “best education” (Comercio). Although discrimination towards Chinese Peruvian still exists today, a lot of Chinese immigrants have integrated in Peruvian society well. As business elites, many of them married local people (Comercio). Chinese Peruvians are an inseparable group of Peruvian society today.

Chifa in Peru

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Thanks to the integrated Chinese-Peruvian population, Chinese food business prospers in Peru. TripAdvisor data show that there are more than 300 Chinese restaurants in Lima area alone. Among these 300 Chifa restaurants, we further explored three renowned dine-in places, and a food shop that offers delivery service.

Chifa Tita is first Chifa restaurant that caught our eyes. The Peruvian version of Yelp ranks it twelfth out of 1,219 diverse restaurants in Lima. As we browse through the reviews, most of the customers claim that “¡Las comidas aquí son las más auténticas!” (“The food here is the most authentic!”) Some claim this in comparison to the fact that they have traveled around and experienced Chinese food in other countries as well. Unfortunately, Chifa Titi’s menus are not provided online, so we were unable to judge the validity of the reviews. The restaurant’s introduction does mention its “Kam Lu Wanton” (fried wonton covered in sweet and sour vegetable mix), which is more of a hybrid of Peruvian-Chinese cuisine than a dish typically found in China. In this case, judgment of authenticity derives from past experience and comparisons.

The second restaurant was O-Mei, a Vietnamese-Szechuanese fusion place that ranks 83rd in the area. Here, it offers “carne saltada con verduras mixtas” (stir-fried beef with mixed vegetables, another version of “Lomo Saltado”). Familiar names like “Pollo del General Tso al Estillo Szechuan” (Szechuan style General Tso’s chicken) can also be found on the menu. Because O-Mei’s prices were unavailable, we had to move on to the third restaurant Ming Yin to evaluate the cost of a chifa meal. On its menu, a large-sized order of “Kam Lu Wanton” is 40 Peruvian Nuevo Sol (~12.93 USD). “Lomo Saltado” is also marked 40 Sol. The price for both these dishes is reasonable by U.S. standards, but perhaps not in a localized cost of living. Price of Travel advises a budget dinner for tourists in Lima to be anywhere from 3.23 USD-6.45 USD–a single dish like Kam Lu Wanton or Lomo Saltado in Ming Yin significantly exceeds the budget.

In comparison, prices offered by the delivery chain “Chifa Express” may seem closer to the budget range. Two of the most popular dishes, kam lu wanton and carne saltada con verduras mixtas, appear again on the menu. The former is priced at 22.90 Sol (~7.40 USD), and the latter at 19.90 Sol (6.43 USD). Dishes at Chifa Union in Lima, which is a restaurant recommended to tourists, are similarly cheap. Lomo Saltado on this menu is 18.50 Sol (less than 6 USD). Hence, we envision that the price range of chifa corresponds with that of Chinese American food. Similar to our local Han Dynasty, fancier places like Ming Yin offer upscale service and charge more; on the other hand, cheaper restaurants and delivery places such as Chifa Express trim extra costs for lowered budgets.

Recipe for Recreation

We tried to search Lomo Saltado recipes in late 19th century Peruvian cookbooks, so that we could recreate the dish with maximum authenticity. However, no such information was available online. Several lomo saltado recipes are available from different websites such as AllRecipes, Que Rica Vida, and whats4eats. We finally decided to recreate our dish based on the AllRecipes version, because its ingredients could be found in the recipes of the other two as well.

The required ingredients include the following: 1 (16 ounce) package frozen French fries, 1 pound beef tri tip, sliced 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick, 1 large onion, sliced into strips, 3 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and sliced into strips, 1 yellow chili pepper (preferably Peruvian aji amarillo), 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley,  1/4 cup distilled white vinegar, 1 dash soy sauce to taste, and vegetable oil, salt, and pepper as needed.

Shopping for Our Dish

We got most of our ingredients from Trader Joe’s, including 1 onion, 2 tomatoes, one pack of parsley, 1 yellow pepper, and 1 bag of frozen french fries. However, we couldn’t find the Aji Amarillo (Peruvian yellow pepper). Amy checked two Mexican grocery stores in the Princeton area (La Mexicana and Lupita’s Groceries), in addition to Wegman’s, but all to no avail–so we decided to use the normal pepper we had now. We also had beef from Costco, and rice from Wegmans. A1 rice, the standard set in most of South America, was unavailable in all the grocery stores we checked.  We then decided to use the most similar one we could find, medium-grain Goya rice. In order to cook the dish, we also needed vegetable oil, salt, white vinegar, and soy sauce.  All in all, with the exception of Aji Amarillo and A1 rice, ingredients for making Lomo Saltado are highly accessible at most supermarkets.

Preparing Our Dish

Preparation for this dish was easy! Basically, we just cut onions, tomatoes, yellow bell pepper, and parsley into strips. Following the recipe, we sliced the beef about ⅛ to ¼ inch thick and salted it for a few minutes. We were then ready to cook, and did so easily! This dish tasted really good–somehow both similar to and also different from Chinese food.
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“Where are you from?” “Costco.”

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Cooking Our Dish

We poured a moderate amount of vegetable oil into the stir-fry pan, and once the oil was heated, we cooked the beef until the color changed from burgundy to brown. Then, we put all the vegetables in–order didn’t matter too much. Having continued to stir fry for about 5-8 more minutes, we then put two spoons of salt, and moderate soy sauce. It was almost ready! Before eating, we had one last thing to do: fry the french fries. Depending on the size of the dish and personal preference, the fries are then put together with rice, beef and vegetables.

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“Can you smell it?”

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”Colorful”

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“Not enough? Want more fries?”

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“Let’s make it flat, pat, pat.”

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“Are you hungry yet?”

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“5 minutes later…We finished it!”

Our Thoughts

Ethnic food is often attacked with questions of authenticity, from foodies to immigrants alike. (Who’d have known that there are similarities between the pedantic restaurant reviewer and the immigrant mom crestfallen at the sight of “foreigners” in her favorite restaurant?) Fortunately, Lomo Saltado does not seem to face such challenges. LATAM Airlines blogger Terra Hall even asserts that “chifa has become [so] ingrained in Peruvian food culture that some dishes with Cantonese or Szechuan roots are no longer even considered Chinese, but Peruvian. Epicureans can find dishes like Lomo Saltado right next to traditional Andean dishes like cuy (guinea pig), choclo (giant corn) and Peru’s unofficial national dish, ceviche (raw fish marinated in lima juice)”. Lomo saltado has unquestionable authenticity on both sides of “ethnic cuisine”, not only as a Peruvian favorite but also as a dish with distinctly Chinese origins. We love how integrated this food has become in Peruvian culture, without losing the key identity that makes it special.

In fact, chifa is so pervasive in mainstream food culture that it functions very similar to how Chinese food does in the U.S. This may be due to two aspects:

First, the dish in itself incorporates accessibility in many ways. Most of its ingredients are easy to find in any supermarket–and if not, they are easily replaceable with local ingredients. (We admittedly don’t know what aji amarillo tastes like, but it’s a pepper incorporated in almost every Peruvian dish and not exclusive to chifa.) Without oversimplifying the skill of the cooks in our group, the cooking process is also relatively simple. Items are thrown in the stir-fry pan, order unimportant; the ingredients cook fast; no fancy cooking tools other than a knife, spatula,  and stir-fry pan are needed (perhaps a good overhead ventilator would have been helpful).

Second, there’s no surprise that Chinese immigration to most of Latin America has important similarities with Chinese immigration to the U.S. Both diasporas involved marginalized groups of Chinese men, seeking unskilled work and hard labor in countries completely foreign to them. The distinct structure of power (or lack thereof) affects the presentation of their food in a fundamental way. Chinese restaurants formed not only as an alternative choice to hard labor, but also as the only choice in light of the fact that many laborers were worked to death. It’s thus no surprise that chifa dishes aren’t intended for exclusivity; in this way, the history of the foodmakers is incredibly significant to our perceptions of the food. Perhaps the beauty of chifa comes from a notion contrary to many modern, high-class trends: anyone can make it and anyone can eat it.

Works Cited

“Chinese Peruvian.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.

Comercio, El. “From Indentured Servants to Business Elite: The Story of Chinese Immigrants in Peru.” – Peru This Week. N.p., 03 June 2013. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.

DeHart, Evelyn (1989). “Coolies, Shopkeepers, Pioneers: The Chinese of Mexico and Peru (1849-1930).” Amerasia 15(2): 91-116.

Lesser, Jeffrey. “Countries and Their Cultures.” Asians in South America. N.p., 25 Feb. 2010. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.

“Best Lima Restaurants.” : See 1,210 Restaurants in Lima, Peru with 56,583 Reviews. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.

“Bienvenidos a Ming Yin.” Restaurante Ming Yin. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.

“Chifa Titi.” – Chifatiti.com. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.

 

One thought on “Stir-Fry Around the Globe: Lomo Saltado and the Chifa Tradition

  1. This is a really interesting and informative post. I wonder if you might go as far as theorizing the relationship between the hybridized food and the hybridized Chinese in Peru? Do both take part in parallel category failures, and what might you conclude about the creation of identity in both groups?

    What do you think are the distinguishing characteristics between the Chinese experience in S. America v. N. America? Are there parallels there?

    We will be screening “The Search for General Tso” at the end of the semester–what parallels do you anticipate between your lomo saltado and General Tso’s chicken?

    Finally, during your presentation in class, I was quite intrigued by your comment that initially you did not plan to eat what you were making because of the general condition of the cooking apparatus, but that once you started to smell the food your thoughts had changed. How did the experience of actually preparing a dish change your thoughts about the function of food, and the need for authenticity?

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