Pastéis de nata

Photo By Magda Ehlers

I first tried pastéis de nata in a chifa in the Calle Capón. I must have been five or six. I was with my father, who often took me to Capón, Lima’s Chinatown. He had grown up nearby. When he was young he would help out in the family restaurant, buying sacks of potatoes in the Mercado Central, right next to Capón, and carrying them to the restaurant to peel them. He loved telling me about this period of his life, perhaps to remind me how fortunate I was to have a sheltered upbringing, perhaps to remind himself how far he had come since his days of child labour.

That I first tried pastéis de nata in a chifa in the Calle Capón is surprising. Pastéis de nata are Portuguese egg custard tarts, small, round, yellow and rich. Given Peru was once a colony of Spain, one would expect them to have arrived from Iberia. However, in Peru pastéis de nata are exclusively sold in chifas, Chinese Peruvian restaurants. There is a similar Peruvian dessert, leche asada, but that is more a burnt flan, lacking the pastry base which holds pastéis de nata together. What I had that day was sold as Chinese leches asadas, but they were unmistakably pastéis de nata.

The journey of pastéis de nata to Peru was long and traumatic. From Portugal they went south and then east, and then even further east. During the age of colonialism wherever the Portuguese established trading outposts they took with them their food. One such outpost was Macau in the Pearl River delta. The Cantonese took a liking to pastéis de nata, incorporating them into their cuisine. Then, in the middle of the nineteenth century many Cantonese immigrated to Peru, recruited under false pretences to work as indentured servants in large haciendas. Like the Portuguese, the Cantonese brought with them their cuisine. When they eventually opened restaurants in Peru, they sold pastéis de nata.

My family also crossed the Pacific with their cuisine. In the early 20th century Peruvian hacendados shifted their recruitment from China to Japan. Tens of thousands of Japanese came, initially labouring under terrible conditions. Once they fulfilled their contracts or fled the haciendas, they moved to Peru’s cities. Many invited family members to join them in Peru, since poverty and hunger were widespread in Japan. According to my grandmother, my obachan, her parents came then, as invitees.

When my obachan’s parents moved to Lima they opened a restaurant serving what they knew: Japanese food. Unfortunately, this was not popular in the working class neighbourhood where they settled. The family restaurant struggled until it Peruvianised its menu. After that the situation got more comfortable, but my father and his many siblings still had to work in the restaurant growing up.

To this day my family mostly eats traditionally Peruvian, perhaps even more traditional than most Peruvians. Regardless, our Japanese origins are obvious. There is sometimes sashimi or tempura. When we speak Spanish we use ochá for breakfast and tea, gohan for meal and rice. Unseasoned rice is ever-present. It usually makes sense, as my obachan frequently cooks stews, which need a side dish. Sometimes, however, my obachan makes spaghetti Bolognese and serves it with rice.

When my father was interned in the hospital for the final time I had to leave Cambridge at the last minute. My aunt, who is a doctor, insisted. Yet, arriving in Lima was frustrating. There was no way to see him; Covid meant no visits were allowed in the ICU. After a week he was moved to a ward. Only then could I see him, and only for limited amounts of time. I went every day. The first day he seemed like his old self.

He died after we took him home. He joked until the end. Sometimes I think ‘dad jokes’ are an Anglo-Saxon concept, but that was certainly his type of humour. I never found him that funny, but I must admit he had his moments. The day before he died, a priest came to perform the last rites. He was still conscious then. When he saw the priest, he joked: ‘What’s he doing here?’

I do not remember his last meal, but one of the last things he did was ‘have coffee’ with my great aunt, visiting from Japan. It was her birthday, since it was past midnight. He was barely conscious and could not speak nor move. He could not even drink. My great aunt had to get a gauze, soak it in coffee and put it on his lips. I hope he tasted coffee.

My family drinks too much coffee. There is always a bottle of coffee extract on the table, ready to be diluted with boiling water and drunk. Towards the end of his life my father drank coffee instead of water. He claimed it helped his kidneys; with coffee he had control over the amount of liquid he ingested. Apparently it is easy to drink too much water.

The last Christmas I spent with him he taught me how to brew coffee extract. I could not make very good coffee then but I am much better now. Unfortunately, his lessons did not contribute, since he taught me using a Peruvian cafetiere. Peruvians are not aware of this, but the cafetiere we use to make café pasado is only found in Peru, a slight adaptation of the Neapolitan cuccumella. The cuccumella is very rarely found in Italy today, let alone in the rest of the world. To get better at coffee-making I had to learn to use a French press in England.

The only time I remember telling my father I loved him was at the end of his life. I did not need to. He never told me he loved me and he did not need to. He once told me our family was not very expressive. We expressed love, he said, through food. I am not surprised, given how much my obachan cooks, loves to cook and loves going out to buy ingredients to cook.

I told my father I loved him in a letter I wrote him while he was interned in the hospital, before I managed to see him. At the end of the letter, I included a poem about a favourite restaurant of ours: Hawaii Tea Room, mid-century Peru’s response to American diners. In the poem I listed our usual order: lomo saltado with tacu tacu, and cebada to drink. I ended the poem with a plea, telling my father I longed to go back to Hawaii with him.

My father loved to cook. His friends, and mine, remember him for his cooking, by all accounts excellent. However, he rarely won the impromptu lomo saltado competitions which erupted whenever he and two of his siblings met. I love lomo saltado, a sirloin and fries stir-fry. To be honest I always preferred my aunt’s, consistently tender and flavourful, but my father’s was good too, definitely better than his brother’s, which was always too smoky. My father thought my aunt cheated, since her sirloin was tender because she cooked it separate from the onions, tomatoes and fries. From him I learnt about the importance of timing and sequence in stir-fries.

My father loved exploring places to eat. Every Sunday we would go to a new restaurant. I was not always happy to do so. I enjoyed fine dining and I insisted paying extra for the experience was worth it. Moreover, I already had places I liked, which, to be fair to me, were not always expensive. I would ask him what the point of finding new restaurants was; we already had enough.

The chifa in Capón which sold pastéis de nata was one such place. We sometimes sat down inside but more frequently we had food to go. We would usually get char siu, sweet, barbecued pork. Then we would get some dim sum, usually min pao, steamed buns, or siu mai, compact dumplings. I would sometimes ask for pastéis de nata, which I preferred cold, since cold custard is delightful, but which I usually had room-temperature. I have not been back in years, but I can still clearly picture the orange plastic bags we took away the food in.

I recently travelled to Portugal and had many pastéis de nata, always with coffee. They were exactly like the pastéis de nata in the chifa my father took me to. Also in Portugal I had dinner with a local friend. He ordered for us. I was surprised by the starter, some version of battered deep fried vegetables. My friend reminded me the Portuguese had introduced tempura to Japan. I told him the story of how pastéis de nata got to Peru.

Whenever I visit European countries I find I grew up eating one of the local dishes. Peruvian cuisine is like that, a baroque mixture of many influences. Peruvians like to flatter themselves and think they are the country of ‘todas las sangres’, where everyone is always already mestizo. This official discourse obscures much. Pastéis de nata got to Peru on the back of indentured servitude. My father never spoke Japanese, for Japanese was banned in the wake of World War II. During the war many Japanese Peruvians were rounded up and sent to concentration camps in the US. Peruvian mestizaje is sometimes a way to erase uncomfortable pasts.

When my father died I learnt of many distinctly Japanese Peruvian traditions I did not know before. He was cremated with seven needles, a chocolate for his ojiichan, a Uniqlo down jacket I gifted him, a doll, a stuffed cat my aunt bought him, and some other items which escape me now. In his room, where he spent so much of his later life, we set up a small shrine on the table he used for dialysis. There we put his picture, candles, a sandy bowl for senko sticks, and a replica of the cat that was cremated with him. In the days after his death every time we had food we would offer some to him. Like so many times before he died, I served him coffees throughout the day.

An interesting tradition involved the protocol after the burial. My obachan said that if we went straight home spirits might follow us. To avoid that we had to go somewhere public and have something to eat. Then, spirits would not know to leave with us. We ended up going to a restaurant inside a casino, where we had a mixture of Japanese and Peruvian food. Although we were in black you could hear loud conversation and laughter. My father’s portrait, the one we eventually placed in the shrine, was at the head of the table. I had chicken guts in soy sauce with fries, which I loved. It was sweet and salty with the right amount of chewiness. It was the sort of food my father loved.

I associate food with him. Food is intimate and political, local and transnational, brutally necessary yet also possibly sublime. In food there are a thousand traditions and ten thousand stories, but there is always space for originality. Food is how my father told me he loved me. It is now how I tell others I love them.

I have not gone back to Capón since my father died. I will, next time I am in Lima. I will go the chifa we always went to, and order what we usually had. Char siu, min pao, siu mai and pastéis de nata. I may also try some other chifa, knowing full well I may be disappointed. Regardless, that is something my father would have done. I miss him, but he lives on, in me, in my sisters, in my memories, in my tastebuds. To many he was Jaime, to the family he was Kensho, but to me he will always be the father who taught me to love food — and introduced me to pastéis de nata.         

Rafael Shimabukuro

Rafael is a doctoral researcher in Latin American Studies at the University of Cambridge in the UK. His academic work is located at the intersection of political economy, critical theory and history from below. He was born and raised in Lima, Peru.

Rafael is a doctoral researcher in Latin American Studies at the University of Cambridge in the UK. His academic work is located at the intersection of political economy, critical theory and history from below. He was born and raised in Lima, Peru.

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