Food Culture

Heading East … and Back

East Meets West


One of the most intriguing elements in this evolving cuisine has come from the cooking of the people who came to the New World from Asia and of how the products of the New World have caused culinary reverberations throughout their countries. There are two reasons I’m so drawn to this silken strand in the web that connects New World Cuisine.

The first was a man named Tokio Suyehara. I never went to cooking school but I have learned a lot from many cooks and chefs I’ve met over the years. The first chef I admired was at my second job as a cook. “Tokey”, as he was known was Japanese and since working with him and his guidance I’ve felt a kinship with all things Asian.

The second reason is that as a chef with a curiosity for all things flavorful I didn’t want to be restricted from including the beauty, power and reverence for the aesthetics that are integral to all manner of Asian cooking even though I am seemingly cooking in a place with few Asian influences. Finding that there is and has been a historical precedence that is vigorous and true gives me a sense of freedom to pursue these interests and still maintain my own pledge to cook with historical roots that illustrate the place I live.

Raymond Sokolov is one of the writers who I admire the most. His work, “Why We Eat What We Eat” has been a personal “spirit guide” for me. He wrote, “This process of constant evolution in the world’s kitchen went into high gear five hundred years ago when Columbus landed in the West Indies. Even from that first voyage he brought back new foods to Spain. This is not surprising perhaps since one of his principal motives in seeking a new westward route to Asia was to seize and gain advantage in the spice trade, but what is truly surprising about the transoceanic interchange of food and food ideas after 1492 is how fast it happened. Within fifty years the Spanish had established full scale European agriculture in the West Indies, Mexico, Peru, and the Caribbean coast of South America (the so-called Spanish Main, which is now divided between Colombia and Venezuela). The Spanish had also opened up a regular trade with China from their base in the Philippines. Food and food ideas flowed freely between Seville and Asia on the same ships that carried goods from China and the Americas to Europe, and on the return trip brought European necessities for the colonists. The so-called Manila galleons took five months to make the passage across the Pacific to Acapulco. Their cargoes were then transported overland to Veracruz on Mexico’s Gulf coast, reloaded on shipboard, and sent on to the mother country”


In Peru alone, Chinese cuisine has played a major role. To a cookery already enriched by many ancient cultures, in the 19th Century the Chinese would add a new dimension with their 5,000 year-old gastronomy founded on profound philosophical principles. Between 1849 and 1874, some 90,000 Chinese coolies, mostly Cantonese, immigrated to Peru as indentured laborers to work in railroad construction and agriculture. They brought along their traditions, dress and cuisine. As they progressed, many moved to Lima’s depressed downtown area around Calle Capon, which became the city’s Chinatown. Importing ingredients for their cooking by ship half way around the world was cumbersome and costly, and soon they grew their own special vegetables, (snow peas, ginger and the like) and raised ducks, chicken and carp as they had back home. Cuisine proved a strong force in gradually eroding the racist prejudices at first shown by limeños toward the newcomers. Initially at humble warehouses and cafés and later at family restaurants in and around Calle Capon, Peruvians sampled Chinese cooking and fell in love with it. By the 1940’s the generic name of chifa (from the Cantonese chifau, or “to cook”) was applied to these pioneer restaurants.

According to Peruvian food expert Mariella Balbi, there are some basic differences between chifa and classic Cantonese cooking. For sweet and sour sauces, tamarind, a fruit that grows in Peru, is preferred to vinegar; fish and seafood are plentiful and more varied; and there is an endless choice of hot peppers for spicy dishes. Peruvians love fried wontons and other fried dishes; chaufa rice, a richer version of fried rice; and pickled turnip strips. And they have overwhelmingly replaced tea as a beverage with a soft drink called Inka Kola that tastes of lemongrass.

Today the thriving Chinese community is five generations old and numbers almost a million in Peru, and there are over 2,000 chifas in Lima alone, from lavishly-appointed palaces in plush residential sectors to unpretentious traditional eateries in Chinatown.


It was in Peru again that Asian people emigrated, this time from Japan. In 1899 the first ship of immigrants arrived. They started working on the coastal plantations but before long became more integrated into all walks of Peruvian life. The Japanese were superior fisherman and the refinement of seafood dishes throughout Peru were dramatically elevated by the Japanese. The Peruvian penchant for pickled seafood, (ceviche) has found an even more delicate manifestation, which imitates Japanese sashimi with what is called tiradito in Peru. One can dine in a restaurant in the port city of Callao and have tempura dishes as well. Many people know the brilliant cuisine of Chef Nobu Matsuhisa. His daring “experimentalism” lofted him to the top of New York’s food cognoscenti. What many people did not realize is that Nobu had lived in Peru prior to New York and that he had fused his Japanese training with South American foods and techniques as any chef with his spirit and intelligence might. He reinvented some Peruvian dishes with his inimitable style and they became part of his delicious stock in trade.

Peru has had the influence of Japanese cooking for over 100 years now. When one compares that to the relative short period of time Japanese cooking has influenced mainstream America one can begin to appreciate how substantive the effects might be. The newest phase of culinary creativity is called “Novoandino” or the new cooking of Peru. It is one born out of the fusion of ancient Indian and modern day Japanese cooking.


It is most telling that this island archipelago was named for a Spanish King, (Phillip). Spain was as intent as the other European powers of the day in spreading her colonial grip as far and wide as possible. One of Spain’s most strategic stages became the Philippines whereby they could easily trade with China. In the process, the Philippines became the first Asian country that practiced Catholicism and the effect on the Filipino tables didn’t stop with the saying of grace.


A number of the islands in the Caribbean became major producers of sugar. After the abolition of slavery in the colonies indentured labor became the last significant pool of cheap labor now to be utilized by the planters. Mainly this source of labor came from India. With their arrival it wasn’t long before curries and roti bread began to work their magic scent throughout the Caribbean. Many other dishes of East Indian heritage commingled with the Caribbean table from the mid 1800’s now particularly on the island of Trinidad.

The Indonesian dish known as rijstaffel (Dutch for rice table) came west via the Dutch from Indonesia in the 18th century to the Dutch controlled countries of the Caribbean such as St. Maarten, St. Eustatius, Aruba and Bonaire. It is a highly ritualistic style of dining that consists of hot rice paired with a stunning array of small, tasty dishes that include seafood, meats, vegetables, sauces and the like. Servants stood behind the chair of each guest ready to provide soothing morsels when necessary to cool a burning palate.

The Dutch, attracted by nutmeg and cloves waged wars over the Spice Islands of Indonesia and colonized the entire archipelago. Through the Dutch traders chile peppers were brought there from Mexico. Peanuts from the Americas provided sauces for satays. Yuca came from the Caribbean and sweet potatoes from South America.


When I first delivered a speech entitled “Fusion Cuisine” in 1988 I caused quite a stir. I was the first chef to ever use that term. Its meaning is typically shifted by detractors but meanings often are. The debate goes on to this day if “fusion cooking” is a good or a bad thing. There are bad examples of “classic” cuisine just as often as there are bad examples of “fusion cuisine”. But culinary experimentation has gone on throughout history and will continue to do so. When I reached the end of that speech I quoted Walt Whitman who wrote in his revolutionary poem, “Leaves of Grass”, “Do I contradict myself, very well then, I contradict myself; I am large, I contain multitudes.”

The multitudes that are weaving their way into this North American region of “Las Americas” is doing that, and then some.


Norman Van Aken, Copyright 2019

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