This Famous Peruvian Dish Actually Comes From Chinese Immigrants

The little-known origins of lomo saltado and chifa.

September 28, 2018

This week, in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, food writer Carlos Olaechea traces the origins of Chinese-Peruvian cuisine and shares his recipe for lomo saltado.

Growing up in Miami, my dad raised me with the idea that almost anything available in this country had its superior Peruvian equivalent. If I wanted to decorate a tree and sing “Jingle Bells” at Christmas, he’d steer me toward building an elaborate nativity scene and caroling songs about feeding baby Jesus sweet soup. Instead of Bagel Bites and Carvel ice cream cake for my birthday, he’d order platters of triple sandwiches and thickly frosted yellow cake concealing generous layers of manjar blanco (what Peruvians call dulce de leche). And any time we wanted Chinese food, we’d always end up having chifa.

Chifa is what Peruvians call Chinese food. It’s also how Peruvians refer to Chinese restaurants. In fact, the word embodies an entire multisensory experience, so it probably won’t be too long before Peruvians use the word as a verb, too.

This uniquely Peruvian term is said to have originated from the Cantonese phrase 饎飯, which roughly translates to “cooked rice” (or some variation of that). The Chinese dictionaries I consulted couldn’t identify the phrase, but they were able to parse out words like “food,” “rice,” and “to cook.” Regardless of what chifa actually means, there is a similar word for “fried rice,” chaufa, which looks like this: 炒饭.

According to Dr. Luis Yong, the owner of the famous San Joy Lao chifa in Lima, Spanish-speaking limeños would overhear their Cantonese-speaking neighbors saying this phrase and soon began using a Hispanicized version of it to refer to Chinese food and the businesses that sold it.

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Top Comment:
“The quintessential Peruvian/Chinese dish! I've been enjoying this dish and it's many alterations throughout my younger years and now as an adult and classically trained chef, I can admire and respect this simple yet intricate dish so much more. But for me there is no better comfort food than comida norteña and one of it's iconic representative, the arroz con pato. I recommend trying to alter it with duck confit. I guarantee you will not be disappointed... And of course it has to be served with Sarsa Criolla and Huancaína sauce. Que viva el Perú!!! 🇵🇪”
— William C.

Although it refers to Chinese food, the dishes that make up chifa are far removed from anything you would find in China. It’s also markedly different from the hybridized Chinese takeout you find throughout the United States and has little similarity to other hybridized Chinese-Latino cuisines. This uniquely Peruvian style of Chinese food incorporates Peruvian ingredients and is altered to suit Peruvian tastes, while also playing into the orchidaceousness that many Peruvians of the time associated with East Asia.

What this translates to is a repertoire of flamboyant, meaty specialties swimming in intensely seasoned sauces. Dishes feature flavors, textures, and ingredients that are uncommon in Peruvian creole cuisine: sticky fruit-studded gravies, land and sea animals on the same plate, and dainty garnishes of boiled quail’s eggs. This makes trips to a chifa feel like a culinary adventure to the average Peruvian, let alone Joe Shmoe. Additionally, dishes maintain Hispanicized versions of Cantonese names, adding to chifa's colorful mystique.

You’d start with a bowl of fuchifú (bean thread soup), for instance, and accompany your chi jau kai (crispy chicken in black bean sauce) and kam lu wantan (fried wontons smothered in sweet and sour sauce) with a heap of chaufa (again, fried rice). This being Peru, the whole meal is accompanied by tiny spoonfuls of rocoto chili sauce and washed down with Inca Kola, the national soft drink.

Many Chinese-Peruvian dishes have become so popular over the decades that they’ve migrated over to creole buffets, cevicherias, and rotisserie chicken joints. Go to any Peruvian restaurant and you’ll be sure to find chaufa on the menu. This fried rice dish derives its name from the Chinese chao fan (literally “fried rice”) and is not too different from the Chinese original—at least superficially.

This makes sense for a few reasons. The first Chinese immigrants to the Andean country reportedly arrived in October 1849 from the southern province of Guangdong, which was known as Canton back then. By 1874 Chinese people in Peru numbered in the tens of thousands.

At first they worked in the sugarcane and cotton plantations that dotted the coast. Later arrivals worked in the construction of railroads connecting the capital city of Lima to other towns in the Andes. Most worked as contract laborers collecting guano on offshore islands. The conditions on these islands were torturous, and the Chinese were treated particularly worse than other immigrant groups.

By some accounts, it was the early chifas in Lima that served as support networks for many Chinese immigrants during these times and provided assistance in breaking free of the abusive labor contracts. Those who decided to stay in Perú were known as tusán, and many settled around Capon Street in central Lima, which became the city’s official Chinatown.

As the tusán community began to gain recognition in Lima society, many non-Chinese Peruvians began venturing into Calle Capón to sample the food at places like Kuong Tong, which opened in 1921, or the aforementioned San Joy Lao, which opened in 1934 (or 1927, depending on who you ask). The first non-Chinese Peruvians to flock to chifas were members of Lima’s aristocracy, who frequented these restaurants to affirm their sense of worldliness. As a result, many of the chifas throughout Peru are pretty lavish.

On my last visit to Lima, it was sometimes difficult to distinguish some chifas from the city’s many baroque casinos. As a kid, my dad even told me how it was commonplace for chifas to offer private dining rooms or cubicles to their guests, and how some of them even had courtyard gardens with fishponds. These extravagances have positioned chifas as particular institutions within our culture. Going out for chifa is usually a special occasion for many Peruvian families.

Dishes feature flavors, textures, and ingredients that are uncommon in Peruvian creole cuisine: sticky fruit-studded gravies, land and sea animals on the same plate, and dainty garnishes of boiled quail’s eggs.

But not all chifa experiences are fancy affairs. As with other foods, chifa trickled down Lima’s highly structured social hierarchy to the working classes. If you don’t mind the barebones ambiance, you can enjoy an inexpensive plate of roast pork in sweet tamarind sauce or steamed fish with black bean sauce at one of the more lowbrow chifas del barrio, or neighborhood chifas.

Photo by Ty Ransom

Currently there are over 6,000 chifas in Lima alone. Some sources claim that there are more chifas in Peru than any other type of restaurant. Perhaps the greatest indicator of chifa’s importance in Peruvian culture is the assimilation of many Cantonese culinary terms into Peruvian Spanish. Other Latinos can find it confusing to speak to Peruvians about food when we use such words as kión for ginger (instead of the standard gengibre) and sillau for soy sauce (instead of the standard salsa de soya).

One of the most celebrated Peruvian dishes after ceviche also has its origins in chifa: Lomo saltado, with its balance of Peruvian and Cantonese elements, is perhaps the strongest (and most delicious) example of the ingrained Chinese food culture in Peru. Furthermore, the technique for making this stir-fry is quintessentially Chinese, as is the addition of soy sauce. The kick of ají chili, the nuttiness of ground cumin, and the slices of juicy tomatoes against crisp French fries all represent the combination of European and indigenous traditions that form the foundation of Peruvian cuisine.

Add a sprinkle of chopped cilantro and a scoop of white rice, and you have the Peruvian melting pot on a plate. And that melting pot as we know it—where would it be without chifas and the Chinese immigrants who gave Peru its kaleidoscopic culinary imagination?

Do you love Peruvian food, too? Share your favorite dish in the comments below.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

I was born in Peru to a Limeño father and a Texan mother. We moved to Miami when I was five, and I grew up in the "Kendall-suyo" neighborhood—often called the 5th province of the Inca Empire because of its large Peruvian population. I've been writing about food since I was 11 years old, and in 2016 I received a master's degree in Gastronomy from Boston University. A travel columnist at Food52, I'm currently based in Hollywood, Florida—another vibrant Peruvian community—where I am a writer, culinary tour guide, and consultant.


Belinda November 7, 2023
Just now seeing this, as it was "republished", and it was a great read! Being a Chinese-American with a Toisan father and Cantonese mother, I would listen to my mother's stories about my grandfather and his connections to other countries. Peru was one of the places my mother spoke of fondly, and now I need to press her more as to why! I looked up the simplified characters for "chifa" and when I heard it spoken, I knew what it meant and wanted to pass it on to you. It means "to eat" (chi fan), as in "come eat" or "Eat!", and literally, "eat (cooked) rice".
What I found even more fascinating about some of the words that have been Hispanicized, is that the words or phrases stem from either Cantonese or Mandarin, such as chifa. Thank you for this small dive into Peruvian food and why I have always found it comforting to eat!
Mary-Ann October 18, 2019
Hi there! I enjoyed reading this article. There should be more like this with historical background to provide context. My husband and I visited Peru two years ago with some friends. We experienced Lima, cruised on a small riverboat on the Amazon, and then went to Sacred Valley. What a country Perú is.
Thank you for the tip on the aji panca for the Lomo Saltado. I knew there was something missing whenever I tried to make the dish.
One of my laments is that we have not found a decent Peruvian restaurant in the San Francisoc Bay Area. Most of the places we have tried are half-baked. Even their Pisco spurs are terribly wanting.
I would go back on a heartbeat to dine in Lima.
Mary-Ann October 18, 2019
Sorry for the typo. I meant pisco sours.
[email protected] October 4, 2019
There no potatoes in China the only thing soy sauce ok
Carlos C. October 4, 2019
I think you need to research Chinese food a little more. Soy sauce is not the only think that exists in China. And potatoes do exist in China and are used in many traditional Chinese dishes. Now, if you mean that the only ingredient in Lomo Saltado that is not a traditional chinese ingredient is soy sauce, you also need to learn more about the many cuisines that exist in China - cilantro, pepper, cumin, ginger, onions, and beef are integral parts of Chines cuisine. In fact, it can be argued that there are more dishes in China that contain bee than there are in Peru. In fact, Peru is not a big beef producer or consumer. And if you are implying that I wrote that the french fries in lomo saltado come from Chinese cuisine, then you need to actually read the article. Por favor, aprende a leer antes de criticar.
[email protected] April 26, 2019
Lomo saltado is Peruvian with a little influence of Peruvian Chinese combined.
So please stop saying that is Chinese ok
Carlos C. April 26, 2019
Please read the article. Nowhere do I say that lomo saltado is a Chinese dish. It is a Peruvian dish that was largely influenced by Chinese immigrants. There are hardly ANY Peruvian dishes that have not been influenced by immigrants - whether Spanish, Moorish, African, Italian, French, Chinese, Japanese, etc. Very, very, very few of the dishes we Peruvians eat are 100% indigenous.
SophieL January 1, 2019
I'm Chinese-American; my parents emigrated here from Guangdong province in the '40s and we're considered "toisan" which is close to your Peruvian "tusan." I found your article fascinating - as much about the history of Chinese immigrants to Peru as your explanations of the melding of the cuisines. I will seek out a Peruvian restaurant in Los Angeles to check out the lomo saltado. Thanks for opening up a new culinary experience!
Carlos C. January 1, 2019
That is fascinating that your parents were referred to as "toisan," which I guess is another pronunciation of "tusan." (Tusan is probably the hispanicized pronunciation). I do hope you get to try lomo saltado at a Peruvian restaurant, as well as arroz chaufa. Thank you for reading my article
Carola January 1, 2019
Thank you for an interesting article about Peruvian food. I completely identify with your’s always better the Peruvian way. I always put parsley instead of cilantro to my lomo saltado.
When I was reading your article, I thought of Minestrone. I imagine Italian immigrants brought this delicious soup to our country, but when I ordered it in Italy, I was disappointed to see it was tomato based and had no meat, unlike the Peruvian version that has basil and a generous portion of meat.
Carlos C. January 1, 2019
I am totally with you on the Minestrone (or menestrón). Sometimes I find the Italian-Peruvian versions of certain dishes to be a lot more satisfying...probably because they cater to our tastes, and we Peruvians really love rich, creamy, meaty and complex dishes. I will have to try making lomo saltado with parsley, especially when I'm serving people who do not like cilantro.

As for my dad, sometimes he went when we had pollo a la brasa for a week straight!
Susana G. October 7, 2018
Thank you for this small history lesson. Fascinating. I now have a new food subject to delve into and maybe obsess a bit about. Lol. Peru has always been on my list of places to visit one day and now I know what I will eat when I go. I am looking forward to trying this dish and many more that I find in my quest.
Carlos C. January 1, 2019
Hi Susana. I apologize for the delay in responding. I'm glad you liked the article. I do hope you go to Peru and get to stay in Lima for a while. Definitely check out San Joy Lau in Peru's Chinatown. You will really enjoy it.
John O. September 29, 2018
Falso el lomo saltado se hacia sin salsa de soya, ese es un ingrediente nuevo , no se Trata de adivinar los origenes de algo muy peruano
False, the lomo saltado was made without soy sauce, that is a new ingredient, it is not trying to guess the origins of something very Peruvian
Carlos C. October 1, 2018
A lot of the research I looked at attributed lomo saltado to the Cantonese immigrants in Peru. This seems to be the most logical origin of the dish - with or without soy sauce - as stir frying is not a technique commonly used in Spanish, native Peruvian, North African, Italian, French, or West African cuisines - which are the other influences found in contemporary Peruvian cuisine. According to you, what are the origins of lomo saltado? I'm curious to know
Tony C. February 6, 2019
If there is one thing Peruvians know is that the same plate is made slightly differently in every house. That's why Huancaína or any other dish tasted a tad differently at my house than at my grandparents house. Same applies to restaurants and recipes.
Carlos C. February 8, 2019
Exactly, Tony C. Even from neighborhood to neighborhood a dish can change. One thing I have noticed is that there is a criollo lomo saltado and a chifa lomo saltado. And each saltado I have tasted has been different.
William C. September 29, 2018
Ahhh! The quintessential Peruvian/Chinese dish! I've been enjoying this dish and it's many alterations throughout my younger years and now as an adult and classically trained chef, I can admire and respect this simple yet intricate dish so much more. But for me there is no better comfort food than comida norteña and one of it's iconic representative, the arroz con pato. I recommend trying to alter it with duck confit. I guarantee you will not be disappointed... And of course it has to be served with Sarsa Criolla and Huancaína sauce. Que viva el Perú!!! 🇵🇪
Carlos C. October 1, 2018
Thank you so much for your comment! I agree that northern coastal Peruvian cuisine is incredibly good. I am lucky to have a chiclayo-style restaurant close to me. I think we need more diversity in Peruvian cuisine here in the US. Arroz con pato is a treasure of Peruvian cuisine. There is no doubt that duck confit would be amazing in it. I will have to try it out. BTW, I have been thinking about making my own chicha de jora. I was wondering if you have any experience with it.
William C. October 2, 2018
I have and let me tell you it's not as simple as it looks. First you need to get the right maiz (jora type maiz). If you do find it, there are much information online as well as YouTube guides, but the most important part is finding that right corn.
Carlos C. October 3, 2018
I have actually seen jora in some Peruvian grocery stores. I believe one of the major export brands (Like Inca's Food or Dona Isabel) packages it. I will take a look. chicha de jora is not that expensive, but if you're using it all the time, it is probably best to learn how to make it yourself. I'd love to stay in touch if that's alright with you.
Mary-Ann October 18, 2019
Arroz con pato! Yum!
Raquel September 28, 2018
Well lomo saltado has been my favorite Peruvian dish for a while now. It used to be ceviche. When I moved to the US my dad ce bearing a wok because "there was no way I could find one here". Now I live in SF and married to an American whose parents are from China. I am already planning to call my children "chifitas", de cariño, of course.
Eric K. September 28, 2018
Ah, that's very cute.
Carlos C. October 1, 2018
That is great!
Smaug September 28, 2018
I liked this article- it seems a good deal more substantial than most of what appears on these pages. I confess that, other than being a great admire of Susana Baca's music, I know practically nothing of Peru- I suspect that's the case for most Americans. I also confess that I don
't remember hearing the word "orchidaceous" before, but I will henceforth devote all my efforts to finding an excuse to use it.
Eric K. September 28, 2018
Susana Baca! Thanks for reading, Smaug. Glad someone noticed what we're trying to do here :)
Carlos C. October 1, 2018
Thank you for reading, Smaug. Hopefully I can change how Americans view Peru and its cuisine. There is a reason why it is one of the most popular cuisines in Latin America....
Jenn September 28, 2018
Hello Carlos , nice article 👍🏼I'm peruvian and
In the recipe ask for ají panca 🤔
As a chef i never heard lomo saltado with ají panca 🙌🏼With ají amarillo all the time😅
Carlos C. September 28, 2018
Hey, Jenn. Thanks for your comment. I 100% agree with you. aji amarillo is most traditional, and usually it is julienned aji amarillo. I have actually made it with diced or julienned aji amarillo, aji amarillo paste, and aji panca paste. When I am making it with lomo, i love how the deep flavor of the aji panca pairs with the beef and the smokiness from the the searing hot pan. Try it out and let me know what you think.
Carlos C. September 28, 2018
and when i'm making pollo saltado (or mariscos) I use aji amarillo.
Eric K. September 28, 2018
Curious to know which Peruvian dish a Peruvian chef loves most?
Jenn September 28, 2018
Anticuchos are so good , chifa ( chinesse / peruvian food) nikkei (peruvian / japanesse food)
Peruvian food has a lot of good dishes i can't choose one 🙈