It all started at dawn with the crow of the merciless rooster in the cotton and sugar cane fields of Peru. Sweat dripped from their brows, backs beat with freshly raven ox-bows entrenched in their leathery skin, the Coolies—Chinese indentured laborers—helped solidify the broken economy. They worked between 12 to 16 hours a day and the underfed man grew stronger in his conviction towards freedom with anger in his heart and blisters on his overworked hands. The difference between a slave and an indentured laborer was not only the color of their skin, but rather the length of their contract—the ownership of their livelihoods.
At the turn of the 19th century Chinese indentured laborers were transported after the emancipation of the slaves. A plethora of men were kidnapped, coaxed, and sold from different regions of China and shipped in crowded and uncleanly conditions. The first Tusán forefather entered the Spanish Colonial land against his will in the port of Callao in Lima, Peru. As little as 50 Coolies were sold for 300 soles at a time. This is equivalent to $100. U.S.D. Their unscrupulous term would last between 6 to 8 years, but the Peruvian government would turn their noses at corruption leaving many men to escape or commit suicide.
Spanning from ages 10 to 40 the laborers worked on plantations under the rule of an oppressive hand. After the completion of their contracts many of them traveled to different parts of Peru, most prominently the capital—Lima. The survivors carved themselves a rincon—a corner situated between 7 and 8 of Jirón Andahuaylas in the city center of Lima. The imperial red arches of Calle Capon are a commemorative donation after decades of being forgotten. It is a gate that stands for hope and remembrance, but also a visual marker to the enchanting atmosphere of Chinatown. It’s name derives from the Colonial period translating to “the street of castrated pigs”.
Surrounded by 15th century Catholic churches and convents the imperial red gate of Calle Capon welcomes you with the world’s best chifa—Peruvian Chinese food. A fusion of Asian and South American traditions all within 5 blocks in the Lima Historic district. It is a conglomerate of culture and tradition. Many of the freed laborers flocked to the city center for a new life which soon birthed the creation of chifa. The literal translation of chifa comes from two Mandarin words “chi” and “faan” meaning “to eat rice”. What sets chifa apart from other Asian fusions is the use of Peruvian spices such as aji amarillo–yellow hot peppers, and their use of pineapple that brings out the savory taste of pork dishes.
In the last 20 years Lima’s Chinatown has gone through a renaissance of their own. It is easy to see how the history behind the slavery, the work, and the pain was easily forgotten yet deeply engrained in their food culture. Chifa is an obvious creation to the history behind the Coolies, but what you may not realize is that many of Peru’s traditional home-style dishes were influenced by the Tusán forefathers. Lomo Saltado, a popular steak stir-fry throughout Peru is a perfect example of the entwined fusion of culture and taste. Marinated pieces of beef steak are cooked in a wok over a high flame. It is nearly impossible to not see it on a menu anywhere you go in Peru.
Upon my travels over Thanksgiving break I visited Calle Capon to try real chifa, to take in the beauty of the city, but most importantly, to seek truth and vitality from the carefully crafted morsels of food that stems from a transfused and complicated lineage. I was left a bit disappointed, not because the food didn’t live up to the hype, but rather because the spirit I had conjured up in my head from research of Calle Capon had seemed to have disappeared.
Chifa in Peru is an everyday commodity. You can get it just as easily as getting McDonald’s here in the states. Express and fast food chifa restaurants are nearly on every street corner anywhere you go. So I began to wonder: What will be the difference between these restaurants and those in Chinatown?
I made my way to Calle Capon with my family on a Sunday morning. I had remembered that my mother told me that this area was rather dangerous. My mother grew up in Lima, Peru and lived there until her early 20’s. I took her advice with a grain of salt–a lot can change in four decades. Either way, according to her and TripAdvisor it was best we visit during the early lunch hour, or skip it all together. It was either that or get some chifa in Miraflores where we were staying in our rented condo from Airbnb. I detested this idea thoroughly. I needed to experience the entirety of the history of this food. I wanted to be in the very same place where the freed people created a safe haven, and I wanted to discover this hidden gem. I was on a mission for some sort of enlightenment. I think I should have taken the multiple warnings more seriously.
We walked past street performers, cathedrals, a wedding, tourist traps, and artists. And there it was, those imperial red gates looming over the intersection like a sore thumb. Hoards of people were almost in a sense swimming in and out of those gates like a school of fish. It was tight, cramped, hot, muggy with 80% humidity in the air, and dirty. You could tell the gates, buildings, and streets hadn’t been cleaned in ages, but in my naivety I shrugged it off. The pavements were adorned with the Chinese Zodiac and bricks with the names of donors. Tiny kiosk carts advertised tarot readings and Astrology forecasts. Windows lined with cooked ducks and letters unfamiliar to me. I felt completely lost in this landscape, but what stuck a cord was the absence of these people–the Tusáns.
My family and I made our way to Salon Capon, a dim sum kitchen. Although this is not a restaurant review, I will say I enjoyed the food and fast service. I was able to savor this chifa with a side of Inca Kola–a refreshing Peruvian soda. I had traveled across sea for this very experience, but what was going on outside just made me feel a sense of sadness over the forgotten history, the conception of the very place I sat.
The sun was starting to set and I did indeed start to feel unsafe. People could tell we were not from there and I started to feel exposed as everyone looked my family and I up and down. Everywhere I looked I saw what you expected the Peruvian stereotype to look like–the dark black hair, the short stature, and the tan skin. It had seemed like the Tusán culture of these people had died out at some point. All that was left behind was this skeleton of what once was that loomed over the street of 7 and 8 of Jirón Andahuaylas.
Regardless of the unexpected disappointment I had faced, chifa– the actual food and the gem of Peruvian cuisine is still indeed alive in their culture. It can be found on every street corner, a “Barrio Chino” still “exists”(somewhat) on Calle Capon, and many people seek out this comforting food to deviate from the usual. Although it’s painful history maybe in the past and forgotten, I still did find solace in knowing that that one meal from Salon Capon came from those before me, a people who suffered but left a legacy hidden in this tiny little rincon in the Capital city of Peru.
P.S. If you’re interested in trying some real chifa locally, I highly recommend you check out 8-8-Panda here in Casselberry, FL.
Footnote Tusán: A local born Peruvian whose parent’s immigrated from Asia. These people are multilingual speaking the mother language of their parents, Spanish, and possibly Quechua depending on locale. People closer to the Andes speak Quechua and Spanish.
Featured Image “CHIFA” from diegoe Flickr.