On Thanksgiving back in 2008, Roy Choi and his Kogi BBQ taco truck brought Korean tacos to Los Angeles. What Choi did was innovative, and as BBC‘s David Farley says the Korean “taco was something no other city in the world could have spawned.” But Asian influence on Latin American cuisine – and vice versa – is nothing new. It’s been happening for centuries, as migration has led to fusions in Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Cuba, and other Latin Caribbean nations, among others.
According to Mexican-American chef Pati Jinich, the Mexican-Asian connection dates back to the 1560s. “After the Spanish conquered Mexico, and since they arrived, they were looking for what they called the Spice Islands, and they found the Phillipines,” Jinich told NPR. “They found spice!”
Meanwhile, Brazil has the largest Japanese population outside of Japan. On June 18, 1908, 165 Japanese families came to Brazil to look for better opportunities, the BBC reports. The first steps weren’t easy for them, but nowadays, there are ~1.5 million Japanese who have made their mark on Brazilian culture. “…And it is in the eating habits of Brazilians that you can find the most visible evidence of the impact of Japanese immigrants and their descendants,” according to the BBC.
After Brazil, Peru has the second-largest population of Asian descent in Latin America, and Peruvian-Chinese food is so popular that every neighborhood has its “chifa” restaurants. In the Caribbean, Cuba is known for its large Chinese population – a result of Chinese migrants brought to Cuba in the 1850s.
And then there’s the US, where overlapping immigrant communities lead to their own fusions, like the “Chino Latino” restaurants common all over NYC.
Below, we rounded up eights ways Latin America and Asia have influenced each other with results that make foodies weep with joy:
Avocado Fried Rice
Fleeing persecution in the United States after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, one of the places Chinese were welcomed was in Baja, California, according to Munchies. In Mexicali, “Chinese food is undoubtedly the signature cuisine,” Adam Elder writes about the city that has a large Chinese population.
At one of the more than 345 Chinese restaurants in Mexicali, fried rice is served with chorizo and avocado. Arrachera is served with snap peas and bean sauce, and mango is paired with beef strips.
Peru has one of the largest Asian populations in Latin America, and chifa is the name given to Peru’s Chinese cooking, which often fuses traditional Chinese ingredients with local Peruvian ones. The most classic among these is arroz chaufa, the Peruvian version of Chinese fried rice.
This is another Peruvian staple. PRI reports that Peru has a history of accepting other cultures, which has resulted in of their most popular dishes. Lomo saltado is a steak tenderloin prepared in a wok with tomatoes, onions and french fries, served over a bed of rice. The marinade for the meat contains soy sauce, drawn from the influence of Japanese cuisine.
The Korean taco has become an LA staple, getting so popular that it put its creator Roy Choi on the culinary map, spawning restaurants, a cookbook/memoir, a hotel in LA’s Koreatown (the trendy The Line), and a CNN show. Choi grew up surrounded by both Mexican and Korean cultures, and his Kogi truck’s specialty – Korean barbecue piled on delicious Mexican tortillas – helped spark a phenomenon.
Tiradito is a Peruvian dish that could be a called ceviche’s cousin. In this dish, fish is cut into sashimi-like slices (as opposed to the thicker chunks in ceviche), dressed in a sauce called leche de tigre, and served immediately. A variant of this dish can be found at the famed Nobu: the hamachi with jalapeño. Nobuyuki Matushisa, the chef behind the restaurants, was influenced by Peru when he was living and working there. Matushisa told First We Feast that his hamachi with jalapeño is one of the 10 dishes that made his career.
“Hamachi is Japanese yellowtail grown on fish farms and raised on grain,” he said. “The process gives them a milder taste and whiter meat than fish caught in open seas. I put the hamachi-jalapeño combination together one night for my staff. There was a lot of yellowtail left over from an event that day and jalapeño was the only spice remaining.”
Chinese immigrated to the Dominican Republic starting in the 19th Century. Eventually, they started Pica Pollo restaurants in the DR, according to Aunt Clara. Dominicans, who also grew to love Chinese food, made their own versions. Chofán, for example, is their version of chicken fried rice.
Japanese restaurants in Brazil are a common phenomenon, given the large Japanese population. And this blend has made its way to other parts of the world. In four U.S. cities and London, Sushisamba serves up Japanese-Brazilian-Peruvian fare.
On the menu, you’ll find Portuguese octopus a la plancha – potato confit, aji panca, botija olive – as well as their collection of samba rolls. The Sao Paulo roll, for example, is made of scallops, masago, red onion, tuna, salmon, shrimp, yellowtail, avocado, truffle, chive oil, and hatcho miso soy.
In Miami, it’s not rare to see Chinese restaurants offering plátanos maduros. Both Cubans and Chinese are fans of pork, fish, rice, and noodles. And the Chinese began incorporating yucca, plantains, and black beans, and five-spice powder became a well-loved Cuban staple.