From My Wok to Yours - Taking the Mystery Out of Everyday Dining and Meals!!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Chinese Food in... Venezuela?

Yuleima, one of my good friends here in San Antonio, emigrated to the United States from Venezuela, and during many of our conversations about what life in Venezuela was like, food invariably became a general topic of conversation. I heard tales of great food in scary conditions, and scary food in great conditions in her homeland, and since then, I have been intrigued. She and her family had me convinced to go on a trip to see the sights of Venezuela, and on the bucket list it went. So a little digging, research, and hours on the phone with travel agents, consular employees and book archivists became my favorite activity.

North Americans who live in big cities where Chinese food thrives may take for granted the gourmet abundance with which they are surrounded. Not so all our fellow Americans in the Southern hemisphere. In Venezuela, for example, one can be hard-pressed to find authentic Chinese fare and I have heard that there is none that is extraordinary even if I were on a ten day junket from Caracas to Chichiriviche and back. That is not to say I would not eat well, as there is plenty of vibrant and succulent Venezuelan cuisine at every corner.

This is a country that reveres corn and prizes beef, a place where people wolf down cheese until 'after' the cows come home. To wit, one high-class restaurant forces four full tablespoons of grated Parmesan onto each small salad. So it is no surprise that Venezuelans are neither familiar with, nor particular to the dairy-free Chinese style of eating. Still, the Venezuelan national dish, Pabellon Criolla, a large scoop of white rice surrounded by deeply-spiced ground beef and stewed black beans, plantains, and white onions, is not unlike a typical Chinese lunch plate. Accompanied with aretitas, luscious baby corn patties and supersweet cheeses and creams, Pabellon Criolla shimmers at a restaurant overflowing with sheer Venezuelan class, the El Tinajero de los Helochos in downtown Caracas.

As San Antonio is a travel hub to South America, is not a bad place to do research about the history of the Chinese in Venezuela. My search for statistics on population, immigration, principal occupations, history, and number of restaurants began at the Museum of Chinese in Americas, continued to the New York Public Library and the Venezuelan Consulate, and concluded with queries to a variety of authors and professors. Many queries but only one slim fact was revealed. In the year 1847, many Chinese men went to South America, a few as hopeful merchants, but most in the 'coolie trade' to dig guano, though mainly to Peru and Cuba, says Lynn Dan in the book Song of the Yellow Empire.

Hers was the only bonafide fact. Venezuelans can tell you about the difficulty of getting official information, and admit to being notoriously hard to poll accurately. Though a Caraceno, or native of Caracas, cabbie postulated that the Chinese are everywhere but they keep to themselves; and a consular representative told me that many Chinese own and operate supermarkets in small towns.

My conversations with Renny Barrios, who has traveled through also emigrated to the United States from Venezuela, but now lives in Nevada, provided the subjective data. He remembers being surprised, about a decade ago, when he met an Asian man who spoke flawless Venezuelan with an especially thick Maracaibo accent. Turns out the Chinese man was born there in the 1970's, to immigrant parents, and he spoke eloquently of isolation.

Renny believes that Chinese immigration, mainly Cantonese, began in the 40's and 50's, and reached crescendo in the mid 70's in connection with the oil boom. He said that the Chinese shops in Venezuela are not so much supermarkets as purveyors of everything inexpensive for the home, from soups to mops. He added that more prosperous Asiaticos work in electronics. While there are Chinatowns in the major cities throughout Venezuela, they are non-descript and in non-touristic parts of town. Although his sparse encounters with Chinese Venezuelans did not yield much, I did learn that they are uniquely laid-back, gracious, effervescent, and seemingly unconcerned with the concepts of promotion and marketing so prevalent up north.

The city of Caracas has about five million inhabitants. That’s as official a statistic as anyone can get! There are just under a hundred Chinese restaurants in the 1999 telephone directory, a few of which are chains. There are no Thai, Korean, or Vietnamese spots listed, and only eight Japanese restaurants.

One typical small Chinese restaurant, with its fish tank traditionally placed in the entrance to block evil spirits, was painted with a scene of Venezuela’s fabulous Salta Angel or 'Angel Falls' and the mystical Amazon Jungle. Aside from an authentic looking photograph of Mao, the stereotypical and tacky decor here and in many other 'chop suey palaces' seemed to indicate that the Bronx’s own Orchids of Hawaii company must have done well in Venezuela a few decades ago. Sadly, the arts and sciences of Chinese cuisine in Venezuela appear to be in a state of stagnation.

Still, as is the roving restauranteur’s want, menu offerings are well adapted to local preferences. A typical lunch special found is for Cream of Corn Soup, Fried Rice, and Egg Rolls, oddly called Lumpia, which is what Filipino’s call their take on the egg roll. Common main course choices included Chop Suey, Lemon Chicken, or Sweet and Sour Chicken. Most Chinese restaurants also provide Platos Internationals, not unlike the American food offerings on Chinese-American menus, and typically include Shrimp Cocktail; Chicken, Avocado, or Mixed Salads; Beefsteak (Biftek de Solomo); Fried Fish and Chicken; and Grilled Meats. It is standard for local desserts to appear on Chinese-Venezuelan menus. Common ones were Tortas or their cakes including cheese cake. Cascos made from local guayaba fruit; and Quesillos, a flan-like dessert without cheese.

I learned through my halting Spanish that both the consular representative and Mr. Barrios have been correct. For at least two generations now, Chinese people have kept to themselves while spreading throughout all parts of Venezuela in the retail grocery business.

I also learned some Venezuelan transliterations of Chinese words into Spanish. Taufu for tofu, caujada de soya for beancurd cake. Difficult words to translate include jajaticos Chinese which are their much-loved corn, the baby corn variety, also available as Sopa Creme de Jajato or Cream of Corn Soup. Given the Venezuelan penchant for corn, it is easy to understand why this baby version is their favorite part of a Venezuelan-Chinese meal. But is there any use of this baby item in their native dishes?

It is said that Venezuela’s closest coast to Beijing is nicknamed China, and that is about as close as it gets. It is even hard to find ginger ale in this solidly western land! Perhaps the best advice would be to try making your own Chinese-Venezuelan food by substituting the national condiment, huasacaca for any Chinese dish you might accompany with hot pepper sauce or roasted salt. One abuelita, or grandmother, gladly shared her family recipe. It is as follows: For guasacaca verde, the green variety, blend finely chopped garlic, a little diced onion, mayonnaise, cilantro and a bit of green pepper into a smooth celadon green condiment with the consistency of thin yogurt. They have a red variety, too. Try dipping some Fried Tofu in it, and wow, what an explosion of flavor!!

Until Then,  Good Eating, Friends...

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1 comment:

  1. Great job... many thanks. It seems similar to the ways Chinese adapted their restaurant food to fit many other countries where they immigrated to. You may have seen it already, but if not, check out Cheuk Kwan's documentary( on Chinese restaurants in 15 countries around the world (only Peru, Brazil, and Argentina, I believe, from South America.