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How Chinese Food Became a Mexico City Staple

The history of sesame chicken and xiao long bao south of the border

Understated and resoundingly regular, Chinese steam table buffets are woven into the tapestry of Mexico City so seamlessly it's not until you start noticing them — like weed dispensaries in Los Angeles or a prolific New York City graffiti tag — that you realize they're all over the place.€” It's a standard model, with as many as one restaurant for every half-dozen blocks: nondescript cafeteria halls, decorated in red and gold, with Formica tables and long steam tables running through their centers, an all-you-can-eat prix fixe for around 70 to 100 pesos (or roughly $3.80 to $5.50 USD).

But whose food is this? Under the warming lamps in their compartmentalized pans sit glistening sesame chicken, string beans wok-fried with bits of indiscernible protein, beef with orange flavor. There are French fries, fried plantains, and fried chicken wings. The first time I visited a Chinese steam table buffet in Mexico City, I filled my plate with fried rice, egg rolls, and batons of shellacked spareribs which reminded me of the corner take-out joints in Brooklyn. The flavors, here, were both sweeter and spicier than their "Americanized" Chinese counterparts, geared for the Mexican palate. Other touches reflected the local terrain: a dish of nopales and beef, the cactus paddles standing in for celery; fresh papaya at the end of the buffet line, for dessert. Most customers were drinking agua frescas of jicama and horchata. The fortunes cracked from the cookies at the end of the meal were in Spanish.

A line of condiments sat at the end of the buffet: Sriracha, soy, pickled jalapeños, dried chile in a seething orange oil, and like every eatery in Mexico City regardless of cuisine, the requisite bowl of lime wedges. Is the restaurant Chinese? Chinese-Mexican? Mexicanized-American-Chinese? In other words, what route did the sesame chicken fly to end up as a de rigueur lunch in Mexico's federal district?

Steam table choices at Long Llón in Condesa.

The Chinese have a long history in Mexico and today, are a significant presence as a resident ethnic group. Large-scale migration started in the late 19th century, when Mexico was a rapidly expanding country in need of cheap labor. According to immigration records, more than 60,000 Chinese migrated to work in the fields, mines, and to set railroads. Another catalyst was the United States' Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which slammed doors shut and forced traveling hopefuls to divert their paths further south to Mexico. By 1920, the Chinese were the second largest immigrant group in Mexico and had diffused to all corners of the country. Dense communities put down roots in northern border towns like MexiCali, in port cities of Veracruz, and to the south, in Chiapas. Mexico enacted its own exclusionary measures in 1930, launching an anti-Chinese campaign and in 1931, full-on expulsion.

In the 1920s, "cafes de chinos" were Mexican equivalents to the American coffee shop, serving a bricolage menu.

Those ejected were officially invited back in the '50s, but there were some Chinese who stayed. Buttressed with links to Chinese wholesalers on the mainland and in the U.S., they established a "transnational commercial orbit," as Robert Chao Romero describes in his book The Chinese in Mexico, 1882-1940. This intra-ethnic network aided labor contracting and commercial trade across multiple borders. Within their local communities, they opened groceries, stocked Chinese ingredients, and built small restaurants to feed a growing diaspora.

Some entrepreneurial Chinese were already versed in American-style, short-order cooking and in the 1920s, opened "cafes de chinos" that specialized in cafe con leche flanked by pan dulce and quick, cheap meals. These utilitarian restaurants were Mexican equivalents to the American coffee shop, serving a bricolage menu of eggs, pancakes, and coffee; Mexican dishes like enchiladas and tamales; and nominally Chinese dishes, like chop suey and fried rice.

These eateries grew in popularity, offering an affordable, round-the-clock respite for urban laborers and new waves of immigrants. They reached their pinnacle of popularity in the 1950s. The streets surrounding the Zócalo in Mexico City were full of them, marked by bobbing red and gold paper lanterns. It's here that Mexico City's first Chinatown "Barrio Chino" (note, "Chino" in Spanish is often used as a blanket term that refers to anyone of Asian descent, corralling a diverse group of ethnicities) coalesced on a two-block stretch of the Centro Historico, serving Americanized Chinese and Mexican-Chinese mashups.

Luis Chiu's father in the Barrio Chino, 1992. He's standing in front of Shanghai, the family's restaurant that opened in 1947. Photo: Courtesy the Chiu family

Luis Chiu, the young chef of one of DF's Chinese restaurant standouts, Asia Bay, traces his lineage back to these early peregrinations. His great-grandfather was part of a wave that came to Mexico during the Revolution and was privy to the anti-Chinese sentiment generated by extreme revolutionary nationalism. He left. Decades later, his son, Chiu's grandfather, landed in Veracruz, eventually making his way to Mexico City where, in 1947, he opened Shanghai, one of the first restaurants in Barrio Chino. It's still open.

"When he started he couldn't find any Chinese ingredients, so the only thing they could make was chopped suey and all those bad, quick Chinese dishes," Chiu says. But the restaurant became a cultural hub. "It was the first stop Chinese people would go when they landed in Mexico," Chiu says. "It used to have a casino, an underground one, where they would play mahjong, with the restaurant upstairs." His father continued in the industry, opening a number of cafes throughout the city that served both Mexican and Chinese dishes —€” the clientele mostly made up of Chinese immigrants seeking community. But three generations and many restaurants later, Chiu is forging new ground.

His restaurant, Asia Bay, sits in a stately house on a cosmopolitan strip of Colonia Condesa, sharing the block with examples of other global cuisines: a Japanese ramen house, a modern ceveceria, and an Argentine grill. Across the street, an Irish bar blares Rick Astley and the red lanterns overhead seem to bob in time. With Mexico City's rising middle class and, according to the New York Times, a foreign-born population that's doubled between 2000 and 2010, new types of cuisine are entering the market. People are hungry for food that is not Mexican. And at Asia Bay, the waiters, in chapped black leather aprons, take orders for lo mein and General Tso's chicken from Canadian tourists and Mexican businessmen on extended lunch breaks.

"Sometimes I think that maybe, chilaquiles were invented in a Chinese cafeteria."

But on some tables, wayward dishes appear. There are plates of minced pork with salted fish loins, fragrant cumin lamb, smashed cucumbers that vibrate with black vinegar, and xio long bao, their rich, liquified aspic centers cloaked by translucent skins. They signal that at Asia Bar, there are actually two menus, two cuisines at play: traditional Mexican-Chinese cuisine that looks a lot like the Chinese-American catalog, and —€” just like at some Chinese restaurants in the States —€” a "secret menu" featuring traditional Chinese-Chinese cuisine, strict reflections of the regional cooking of China.

Chiu grew up speaking Spanish and a bit of Cantonese. At home, his mom cooked Mexican and Chinese dishes: chile rellenos one night, beef with bittermelon the following. It was more bifurcated rosters than culinary fusion, though there certainly was borrowing on both sides. Chiu feels at home in the cross-cultural overlap. "Sometimes I think that maybe, chilaquiles were invented in a Chinese cafeteria," he says. "There's no research to back it up, but chop suey is kind of like chilaquiles. You cut everything to strips and fry it up quickly, taking bits of things, putting them together and making a dish."

Dishes at Ka Wong Seng in Viaducto Piedad.

Chiu grew up in his family's restaurants. Once he started studying gastronomy and cooking professionally, he had Quixotic dreams of bringing refined Chinese food to the Mexican masses. He studied in China, and returned home. He quickly realized that serving elevated takes of classics Chinese dishes wouldn't work because most Mexicans had never experienced the originals.

The two-menu selection at Asia Bay is Chiu's compromise with the city. He wanted to serve traditional dishes with no deviations and no flavors manipulated for the Mexican palate. It was a struggle. When he worked at his family's restaurant, Shanghai, he tried to change some of the dishes along the way, tweak them to improve them, and people got angry. "People would come and say, 'I used to come here when I was a kid, 40 years ago. But this isn't the same. It tastes different. Did you guys change chefs?'" he laments. "People go there now because it tastes like it did 40 years ago —€” standard Mexican-Chinese." He had a crisis of faith. "How can I make high-end Chinese food in Mexico," he says, the exacerbation audible, "if people don't even know what Chinese food is?"

"How can I make high-end Chinese food in Mexico if people don’t even know what Chinese food is?"

This illuminates a key element of the Chinese steam table phenomenon: visibility. In Chiu's experience, most Mexicans have a hard time ordering Chinese dishes from a printed menu. "People don't know what they are choosing," he says. "They don't want to read a menu and ask, 'What is this?' Or choose at random and when the dish comes it's totally different than what they wanted. With the steam tables, they can see the dishes, look for something that looks familiar, and choose it." It is a visual representation that allows for individual selection, much like the backlit photos of dishes in take-out joints.

Figuring out what worked best, what translated, at Asia Bay, was an evolution. It started with more upscale versions of the Americanized-Mexican Chinese food on offer at the buffets. "We knew that is what most people would order," says Chiu, "but we also wanted to offer real Chinese food for the Chinese community living here. So we created two menus, one in Spanish, one in Chinese. People would come and see other tables eating stuff that wasn't on the menu and they would ask for it. Chinese businessmen would start bringing their Mexican clients to the restaurant; they would return with their families and want the food they had with their Chinese friends. So we started to print Spanish on the Chinese menu. Then we started to see a lot of English speaking people —€” Australians, Americans, even Korean and Japanese who know how to read English, but not Spanish — coming in, so we started to print a Chinese-Spanish-English menu."

Some of the more classic renditions caught on. "People started to ask more and more for traditional dishes, and leave the 'American-style' Chinese food behind. We used to have orange chicken on the menu, for example, and people stopped ordering it because they wanted hot plate pepper beef or Sichuan-style pork belly. Slowly, slowly, people's palates changed. That's part of our success, I think, bringing real Chinese food to the Western Mexican audience."

Today, the Chinatown in Centro Historico is a theme park for tourists (if you can call it that —€” it's about one square block). The restaurants that fulfill the same role Shanghai restaurant did 50 years ago — providing the city's entry point for newly arrived immigrants — have moved further south. "It's not official," Chiu says, "but Viaducto is where the Chinese residents in Mexico City call Chinatown." It's a south-centrally located, residential neighborhood east of the city's central artery Calzada de Tlalpan. Most of the city's newest Chinese immigrants have concentrated there, mostly from economically distressed regions in the Guangdong Province. Dotting the avenues are small, unmarked groceries with shelves of rice and teas, and petite bakeries selling Chinese pastries.

At one of the neighborhood's best-known restaurants, Ka Won Seng, there's a sign taped to the door, scrawled in Spanish: "No hay comida mexicana, café, ni pan dulce" —€” "no Mexican food, coffee, or sweet rolls," reflecting the city's history and preference for the Chino-Mexicano coffee shop. The restaurant serves dim sum on weekend mornings. There are no roving carts; one must head to the counter where stacks of steamers and bamboo rounds cradle dumplings, turnip cakes, and niblets of pork rib in black bean sauce. During the afternoon, the menu remains brilliant: roasted duck with shellacked mahogany skin, whole fish steamed with ginger and scallions, cold tofu in chile sauce, electric green bok choy with garlic. Menu transcription, for English-speakers at least, is a game of telephone: "Berenjena con jarabe de pescado" reads as "eggplant with syrup of fish" and "gallina fina" is "fine chicken," but the flavors are exact translations.

Chiu has recently expanded his reign of Asia Bay to open two little dumpling shops in the city's newly established, mixed-used foodie markets. The carefully pleated jiaozi speak to the city's well-traveled urbane sect hungry for something new. Over a meal at the city's sole Indonesian restaurant, I ask Chiu if he anticipates phasing out the old Asia Bay menu in the future, getting closer to his dream of serving unalloyed Chinese recipes. He takes a moment to think. "No. People still love sweet and sour chicken, chow mein, fried rice. They are classics. And, in a way, they are now traditional, too."

Lead photo: A scene from Long Llón in Condesa.
Scarlett Lindeman is a writer, editor, and cook who splits her time between Mexico City and Brooklyn; follow her on Twitter @itsmecar. Jake Lindeman is an editorial and documentary photographer based in Mexico City.
Editor: Erin DeJesus

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