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  • Writer's picturejeffreypilcher

The Manila Galleon and the Original Chinese American Food

Many people think that Chinese American food was invented in the form of chop suey during the California Gold Rush. In fact, the Chinese were in the Americas -- and cooking food -- for hundreds of years before 1849. But what this original Chinese American food looked like is even more mysterious than the original chop suey.

Experts debate the genealogy of chop suey. Was it thrown together by a Chinese cook for miners demanding a late-night dinner in San Francisco or carryover from everyday meals in the migrants’ home province of Guangdong (Canton)? Was it a bastardized and assimilated departure from authentic Chinese or a creative adaptation by chefs who had started out in gourmet restaurants before being driven by nativists into segregated Chinatowns? Whatever the case, we can see parallels between the Chinese experience in the United States and diasporic communities throughout the Americas.

Unlike the nineteenth-century farmers who left their homes in Taishin to seek their fortunes on California’s “Gold Mountain,” the first Chinese migrants to the Americas already formed a diasporic merchant community in the sixteenth-century Philippines. In 1564, Miguel López de Legazpi sailed west from Acapulco to conquer the Philippines for the Spanish Crown. Regular trans-Pacific trade commenced soon thereafter with the annual sailing of the Manila Galleon, which carried Mexican silver on the outward voyage, and returned with Asian spices and Chinese silks and porcelain. The Chinese merchants who handled this trade formed a distinct community in Manila called the Parián. By the eighteenth century, this name had also become attached to an exclusive market on the central plaza of Mexico City, where wealthy aristocrats purchased Asian trade goods. In addition to such luxuries, Manila’s Chinese merchants, cooks, and bakers also supplied Spanish colonists with food.

Many Chinese embarked on the Manila Galleon along with people of diverse Asian origins. The Pacific voyage was infamous for its high mortality rates, and Spanish captains were always on the lookout for Filipino and Chinese recruits to fill the depleted ranks of sailors. Moreover, Japanese samurai, unemployed by the Pax Tokugawa, signed on to defend the Galleons from pirates. Finally, Spanish merchants transported slaves from throughout Asia back to the Americas and even to Spain. According to legend, a Christian Chinese named Catarina de San Juan came to Mexico in 1621 and became known as the “china poblana” (Chinese woman from the City of Puebla).

Nevertheless, the association between “chinos” and Chinese or even Asian immigrants was not always clear in Latin America. The Spanish Crown sought to defend the native communities from rapacious conquistadors by dividing colonial society into two distinct “republics” of Spaniards and Indians. Intermarriage stymied this policy of segregation, and mixed-race “castas” soon formed an urban underclass. At first this category comprised mestizos (born of mixed Spanish and Indian parents), mulattoes (Spaniards and Africans), and zambos (Africans and Indians). Over time, in seeking to divide and rule the lower classes, Spaniards invented new categories with bizarre, animalistic names such as lobo (wolf), cambujo (stallion), and chamizo (half-burned tree). Under this arbitrary taxonymy, “chino” was often used as a generic modifier for servant, as in “chino cambujo.” Because Spaniards considered Asia part of the “Indies,” newly arrived “chinos” were categorized within the “republic of Indians.” This in-between social status allowed them to work as traveling merchants selling Spanish goods to indigenous communities.

Thus, for more than two centuries of Spanish colonial rule, ending in the 1820s, tens of thousands of Chinese migrants, many with clear experience in selling and preparing food, arrived in Acapulco and traveled outward from there, but it still remains difficult to discern their culinary impact on Latin America. In examining this legacy, it is perhaps easiest to indicate what the Chinese did not contribute. Although rice is widely eaten in the region and at times nostalgically attributed to the Manila Galleon, Latin American rice is not generally steamed plain in the Chinese fashion but rather cooked in pilafs. Scholars have pointed to slaves from West African rice cultures as the most likely agents of transmission. Likewise, Asian ingredients such as cinnamon, ginger, tamarind, and mango entered the creole cuisines of Latin America, but their preparation in dishes such as mole poblano resembled Middle Eastern more than Chinese cooking.

Material culture provides some hints about early Asian culinary influence in the Americas. A spherical oven, used widely from India through Central Asia to China, was probably introduced to Mexico’s Pacific coast regions of Oaxaca and Tehuantepec. Known as a comiscal, it is used to bake crisp, round totopos (like giant tortilla chips) rather than samosas. Early distilling technology along the Pacific coast may be related to Philippine stills, but this evidence is still tentative.

Part of the difficulty of finding evidence of Asian food in colonial Latin America is that Chinese cuisine has come to be firmly associated with nineteenth-century migrations. More than 100,000 Chinese indentured servants traveled to work in the plantation societies of both Cuba and Peru, while smaller numbers came to Mexico, often with the goal of crossing the border into the United States. Once they had finished their terms of indenture, many Chinese remained in their new homes and found work as cooks or merchants. But as with Chinese cooks in North America, and probably colonial Latin America as well, they were asked to prepare local foods. Chinese elements did enter the local cuisines, for example, tallarin (noodles), chaufa (fried rice), and lomo saltado (stir-fried beef) were beloved menu items in restaurants, which became known as “chifas” in Peru and “cafes chinos” in Mexico and Cuba. We cannot say for sure that similar dishes had arrived already in the sixteenth-century, but the ghostly presence of Chinese cooks lingers in the cultural fusions of the Americas.

Jeffrey M. Pilcher

University of Toronto


Balbi, Mariella. Los chifas en el Perú: Historia y recetas. Lima: Universidad San Martín de Porres, 1999.

de Vos, Paula. “The Science of Spices: Empiricism and Economic Botany in the Early Spanish Empire.” Journal of World History 17, no. (December 2006): 417-24

Pilcher, Jeffrey M. Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Slack, Edward R., Jr. “The Chinos in New Spain: A Corrective Lens for a Distorted Image.” Journal of World History 20, no. 1 (March 2009): 37-43.

Vega, Jiménez, Patricia. “El Gallo Pinto: Afro-Caribbean Rice and Beans Conquer the Costa Rican National Cuisine.” Food, Culture & Society 15, no. 2 (2012): 223-40.

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