There aren't many places in the world where you can eat sweet-and-sour guinea pig. Lima is one of them.
"We do it fried with some oyster sauce," says Luis Yong, head chef and owner of San Joy Lao, the oldest restaurant in the Peruvian capital's Chinatown. "When the president of China came to visit us, he wanted something he'd never tried. When he tasted the guinea pig, he was really surprised. For him, it was delicious."
Guinea pig is a delicacy in Peru. Known as cuy, it's eaten in restaurants and homes across the country and is considered a healthier alternative to pork. The meat dates back to pre-Incan times and serving it with oyster and sweet-and-sour sauces is common in Peruvian Chinese cuisine.
You've probably heard of nikkei—the fusion that marries Peruvian and Japanese ingredients—but the mash-up of Peru and China's cuisines is actually much older and more popular. Most Peruvian Chinese meals start with a traditional Chinese base, but with added South American ingredients and flavours. So you'll have lomo saltado (strips of beef marinated in vinegar and soy sauce) stir-fried and then topped with Andean potato wedges. Other popular fusion dishes include tallarin con pollo (yellow noodles with chicken) and alpaca with black beans.
In fact, Peruvian Chinese is the second most eaten cuisine in the country, Yong tells me, speaking through his daughter Vanessa Yong Aguilar, who helps us out with the translation from Spanish. The pair lead me into San Joy Lao's hot, hectic kitchen, where five chefs are working quickly to serve a restaurant full of hungry punters. It's a Tuesday lunchtime but the place is packed.
One chef is busy over an open flame, methodically tossing fried rice and veg in a huge wok, then plating it up. To that Cantonese staple, he mixes in giant Peruvian corn, known as choclo. Then the dish is laden with golden chicharrón—pork belly that Peruvians typically have for Sunday breakfast, or loaded into a sandwich.
Behind me, another chef is carefully carving giant ribs with a cleaver. The meat is sticky sweet from its time cooking in Chinese and Peruvian spices and will be served with aji, a bright yellow pepper native to Peru.
Combining Peruvian and Chinese flavours in this way is called chifa. The word is thought to come from the Mandarin for eat (chi) and rice (fan). When the first Chinese immigrants moved to Lima more than 150 years ago, they would refer to food as chifan, explains Yong. Peruvians misheard them, and started calling it chifa. The word stuck.
As in most countries, Chinese food in Peru isn't confined to Chinatown restaurants. There are now thought to be 5,000 chifas across Peru (chifa refers to the cuisine as well as the restaurants that serve it). The cuisine is part of everyone's history here, no matter what their ethnic background is. I ask the Yongs why they think that is.
"The Chinese immigrants who came in the late 1800s were intelligent. They started living around Lima's huge central market," says Vanessa. "Why? Because they wanted to have everything fresh—chicken, vegetables, pork. They opened small tea shops and then later, restaurants. They started to build a concentrated barrio Chino here. Everything was Chinese."
When the Peruvians walked through these streets to get to the central market, they would stop to try Cantonese food.
"[It was] through the stomach that the Chinese people were able to conquer Peruvians," explains Vanessa. "Chinese people learned that if the Peruvian eats 'til his stomach is full, then his heart is happy."
Generations later, the cuisine is fully ingrained in Peru's culture. You can see this in San Joy Lao's diners (almost all of them are Peruvian, with the occasional tourist), as well as in Lima's Chinatown itself. Among the rows of cramped shops selling imported Chinese trinkets and goods, there are unmistakable signs of Peru—stalls hawking passionfruit juice and ceviche.
There are also similarities in traditions that the Yongs credit for chifa's popularity in Lima.
"The Chinese [use] flavours that Peruvians love: salty, spicy, sweet, and sour. Also one of the most important things is that we like to share—share between everyone who's around the table," says Vanessa. "It's not like [when] you go to some other countries and you take one plate per person, no. In [both] Peruvian and Chinese cultures, you share."
She continues: "Chinese people are very traditional. They love family. Peruvians are the same. I can tell you that because I'm half Chinese, half Peruvian. "I was living in Beijing for like three years and I can see and feel the same family issues that they share."
Around us, San Joy Lao's lunchtime rush continues. Big tables of chattering families and colleagues share the restaurant's cutely named cha cha cha—that's fried rice with cha siu (pork) and charqui (dried alpaca meat). Everything is washed down with lychee sours (Chinese fruit meets Peruvian pisco) or Inka Cola, the bright yellow soda loved across Peru.
On our table the waiter has laid out platters of veg noodles and fried rice (nicknamed aeropeurto), the fried rice with corn and chicharrón, pickled turnip, and cuy. It's golden and crunchy, with a tangy sharpness from the Chinese sweet-and-sour sauce.
"Chifa—the Peruvian-Chinese food—is now accepted by Chinese people in China," says Vanessa. "When you come here to Lima and you're from France or Spain, you say, 'Ah, the Spanish and French food here is OK.' But this chifa is accepted in the world and in China as a new kind of food. Because it's not Chinese, it's not Peruvian, it's a real fusion."