Eating "Chinese" and Feeling “Peruvian”: Chifas in Argentina
The Chinese are present in many ways in Buenos Aires (Argentina). But there’s a special type of restaurant that marries elements from the Chinese tradition with those of Peru’s coastal cities. These are Chifa restaurants, which started popping up in Buenos Aires as Peruvian migration grew in importance during the 1990s and early 2000s.
Chinese migration to Peru
To understand the origins of this cuisine, we should go back to the 19th century. Chinese workers were brought to Peru in 1849 to replace African slaves in the sugar plantations and the guano fields. They also filled numerous jobs as artisans, servants, and cooks for wealthy families in the capital. The coolie trade, which brought more than 100,000 single Chinese men to Peru, lasted until 1874.
As most contracts were 8 years long, by the 1860s, some of these indentured labours were already working as butchers, pastry cooks, or in various jobs in little restaurants, or fondas. The first versions of these small, low-status restaurants for the working class offered cocina criolla (creole food, the hegemonic diet in Lima) that many of them had learned to cook when working as servants and domestic cooks. Then, by the first years of the 20th century, some of these restaurants started offering Cantonese cuisine. But it wouldn’t be until the 1930s that the word Chifa replaced the word for restaurant. So, Chifa is first a restaurant and then a cuisine. It then became part of the spoken language before turning up in posters and advertisements.
In order to adapt to the tastes of clients, Chinese migrant chefs began to include local products in their plates, such as cuy (guinea pig), chuño (potato starch used to thicken sauces) and pisco. Through these fusions, Chifa began constructing its identity as a culinary tradition.
As it happens with other cuisines in different contexts, Chifa travels with people of Peruvian origin.
Why and how Chifas did establish in Buenos Aires?
The arrival of migrants from neighbouring countries and Peru in Argentina grew in the 1990s, when it increased fivefold. It was in this context that Peruvian restaurants started appearing in Buenos Aires. At first, they were aimed at the Peruvian community. Then, with global awareness of Peruvian cuisine, led by state-sponsored gastro-diplomacy, Peruvian restaurants became relevant in Buenos Aires’ new "ethnic cuisine" scene. Among this diversified offerings of Peruvian restaurants, Chifa restaurants started to pop up in Buenos Aires in the mid-2000s.
Over the course of 2019, I conducted ethnographic observations in these restaurants and interviewed chefs and owners. I found that most of their cooks had previous experiences in Chifas’ kitchens in Lima. They were all Peruvian and of non-Chinese descent. They began working in the lower-level positions back in Lima, where they learned from Chinese cooks in charge of these kitchens. The encounters in those kitchens described by Chifa cooks were marked by tension, friction, and conflict. The kitchens represented sites of encounter between people with different knowledge, cultural backgrounds, languages, and positions in workplace hierarchies. In short, they were encounters between individuals unequally positioned in the social world. And, at the same time, they were also transnational and transcultural spaces.
The process of learning new tasks and culinary techniques was described by Peruvian cooks as especially conflictive. The first barrier was language. Since most Chinese cooks in Chifas don´t speak Spanish, the learning process they described was mostly observational. Mastering the wok technique was both a key and challenging task. The process of learning is practical and bodily, it involves observation, practice, and grasping how the body was to move through feeling. It involved correction and multiple attempts.
The decision to settle in Argentina, in all my interviewed cases, came down to an offer to work in a Chifa in Buenos Aires. Thus, transnational migrant networks – the sets of interpersonal relations that link migrants with relatives, friends or fellow countrymen at home - played a significant role in defining population mobilities - in these cases between Lima and Buenos Aires.
Like the food, the decorations in Chifa restaurants in Buenos Aires contain objects that evoke both China and Peru. They locate stereotypical images associated with each of these countries and their cultural landscapes. For example, there are Chinese lanterns next to pictures of Machu Picchu, Chinese traditional paintings next to soccer shirts of Peruvian teams. What does this decoration convey? Is the decoration also a fusion product?
No chopsticks are used. Customers eat with knife and fork. There aren’t round tables (typical of traditional Chinese restaurants), but only square ones. All of them have a bottle of soy sauce on top (siyao as it is named in Peru).
As for the menus, they are only written in Spanish, which reveals who are the expected customers. But they also recreate images associated with China, mainly by the use of a certain typography and the presence of red color.
In many cases, the customers' experience is marked by nostalgia. Nostalgia overtakes not only the food itself, but other cultural consumptions that take place in these spaces. The ambience is reinforced by TVs playing Peruvian soccer matches and loudspeakers playing Peruvian cumbia.
Like any cultural product, Chifas aren´t homogeneous. In Lima you can find Chifas that use ingredients more associated with the Cantonese culinary tradition, and others that offer plates related to the Peruvian criollo cuisine. Still others only serve combinations of them, such as “Monstrito”.
When Peruvian migrants settled in Buenos Aires in the 1990s and 2000s, they re-created this culinary tradition once more. As cultural practices and identities don´t always overlap, in the migratory context of Buenos Aires, eating in a Chifa increases “Peruvian-ness”. It is a practice performed by Peruvian migrants to create their identity – even though many of them don´t identify as Chinese.
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· Lausent-Herrera, I. (2011). The Chinatown in Peru and the Changing Peruvian Chinese Communities. Journal of Chinese Overseas, 7, 69–113.
· Rodriguez Pastor, H. (1993). Del Kon Hei Fat Choy al Chifa peruano. En Olivas Weston, R. Cultura, Identidad y Cocina en el Perú. Universidad de San Martín de Porres: Lima.
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