By Laine Doss
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By Camille Lamb
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By Zachary Fagenson
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In the mid-1800s, a huge wave of Chinese immigrants, approximately 100,000, most from Guangdong province around Canton, came to Peru to work. They worked in virtual slave-labor jobs -- mineral mining, migrant farm work, railroad construction, and shit shoveling (literally: bat guano was a major Peruvian industry 150 years ago) -- which, nonetheless, were a better break than what they could get at home. Meanwhile the same thing was happening in the western United States. And in Peru, as in North America, some of these Chinese immigrants ended up cooking for the others.
There the similarities seem to end -- for foodies, at least.
In the United States, Cantonese cuisine, or, rather, the shortcut version of it (dominated by understandable but unpalatable time-savers such as major cornstarch thickening), spread from the West to East coasts, but really only in the isolated Chinese restaurant niche. It didn't make inroads into the meat-and-potatoes mainstream until late-1960s hippies discovered woks.
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In Peru, by contrast, characteristic Chinese-ingredient combos like sillau (soy sauce), garlic, and ginger caught on and incorporated themselves into the general cuisine of the nation, as did, for whatever reason, the very non-Latino cooking technique of quick stir-frying. Thus Peruvian cuisine can be thought of as the first Pacific Rim fusion food. More recently, in fact, Nobu Matsuhisa spent three years in Peru developing his cutting-edge cooking style, on his way from Japan to New World food fame.
Not that most Peruvian-Chinese food is such high-concept stuff. In most of Peru's chifa restaurants (the generic term for Chinese places), it's simple homestyle cooking. And in Miami a homey, fun place to try it is at twelve-year-old Chifa, run by an immigrant husband and wife, Cantonese chef/Peruvian hostess team.
For a classic example of Chinese/Peruvian fusion food, try Chifa's version of lomo saltado($8.95), listed on the English-language menu under "Spanish dishes" and almost equally inaccurately on the Spanish-language menu under "Comidas Criolla." (Though often used as a catchall term for Peruvian coastal people, the phrase more specifically refers to mixed-ancestry people who reflect Peru's dual Incan-Spanish colonial legacy; long-cooked clay-pot stews are this "creole" group's specialty, not stir-fries.) Tender beef strips are flash-fried with onion, Asian style, but then combined with two very un-Chinese ingredients: diced tomato and crinkle-cut French fries. In many Peruvian places, this popular dish comes in a Latin-flavor cumin-and-Mexican-oregano gravy. Chifa's sauce tastes more of soy, like a PeruviAsian pepper steak, and it works well. What doesn't work is the fries. Potatoes are, of course, a specialty of Peru. At least 200 varieties, 50 or so still cultivated today, have been grown in the Andes for 6000 to 8000 years, and they're used in dishes far more improbable than lomo saltado. But the potatoes in lomo saltado are supposed to be fresh, deep-fried crisp to stand up to the sauce. Chifa's soggy, starchy crinkle cuts tasted like the prefab frozen variety.
This is particularly strange since the potatoes in papa ocopa ($3.95) were fresh, firm, and genuinely fabulous. A cold Peruvian potato salad, ocopa is much like the papa huancaina served in every Peruvian place in Miami, but with a far more interesting sauce that incorporates ingredients like huacatay (an herb related to marigold) and fine-ground nuts into the usual rich evaporated milk/queso fresco mixture. There's nothing at all Asian about this dish. It's just good.
The same goes for tamalito verde($1.75), a ground-meat core wrapped in steamed cornmeal masa harina. It differs from the usual Peruvian tamal by its spicing with aji verde, a chili hotter than the more common Peruvian amarillo but, like the Cuban dishes in Cuban-Chinese eateries, reflecting no Chinese influence.
The Chinese portion of the menu is much more extensive. And if Chifa's preparations are typical of those in that nation's Chinese eateries, Peru's Latin food has been more Asian influenced than its Asian food has been Latin influenced. Not one of the Chinese specialties we tried incorporated any typically Latin spices or techniques. What Peruvian-Chinese cuisine does generally seem to do, though, is avoid the cornstarch-glopped corruptions of Cantonese cuisine typically found in Chinese restaurants in the United States. Chifa does, for example, make typical Chinese-American sweet-and-sour chicken, assuming a fondness for quarter-inch-thick batter and neon-orange sauce was not bad. Much better choices are the restaurant's more subtle "Peruvian-Cantonese-style" sweet-and-sour dishes. These include chicken tipakey ($8.50) or fish chunks lay chi ti ($11.95), both very lightly battered and tasting more tangy than sugary; chicken or shrimp with an unusual nutty-sweet sesame sauce; and batter-free sweet-and-sour roast pork, chicken, and duck ($8.50), the latter moist but nicely nongreasy, which was true of all the duck dishes we tried.
Chifa also offers Americanized chow mein, complete with the usual packaged dried noodles to mix in. Listed as "lo mein Peruvian-Cantonese style," however, are nine takes on real the real thing, which is, in China, briefly boiled and pan-fried fresh, thin egg noodles topped with a variety of stir-fried meats, seafood, or vegetables in sauce. The veggie version our table sampled was refreshingly crunchy, marred only by the substitution of canned button mushrooms for tastier and more traditional dried black Chinese mushrooms.
Asparagus soup ($2.10) is really just egg drop soup with added chunks of white asparagus. But the broth is more flavorful and less viscous than the Americanized stuff, and the combination of delicate egg strands and the tender vegetable is different but no less appealing than China's original unthickened "egg flower" soup.
Crystal shrimp ($16) was listed as a "Peruvian specialty of the house Chifa style." This dish is generally dissed as "wimp shrimp" by spicy Szechuan food fans, but we ordered it and ended up fighting over the last shellfish, even though there was enough to feed, roughly, Lima. Not spicy but subtly savory, the plentiful medium-large shrimps were cooked perfectly tender, coated with just enough corn flour and egg white to produce the dish's signature shine and seductively silky texture. A knockout.
"House special," a mixture of fresh shrimp, chicken, steamed duck, roast pork, Cornish egg, and assorted vegetables, was a bit bland for our personal tastes. But veggies were crisp, and an application of either of Chifa's two tabletop sauces (beautifully balanced chili and tangy sweet-and-sour) on the plentiful meats and seafood perked it up perfectly.
Do spring for the fried rice, even if you've overordered; it's the best I've had in Miami. Untainted by common but inauthentic Western ingredients like iceberg lettuce, peas, and supermarket-style boiled ham, the two varieties we tried were so chock full of juicy roast pork and succulent shrimp that their respective prices of $5.10 and $5.95 seemed almost unbelievable. On the other hand, rice this good makes it easy to understand why the Chinese so highly treasure a dish that is often, in the United States, flavorless filler. And it did make it seem especially fitting that the restaurant's name is derived from the Chinese for "to eat" -- chi fan, which literally means "eat rice."