Was the Chimichanga Invented by Chinese in Mexico?

Categories: Mexi Meals

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Photo by...someone
Massive chimichanga
Let me start this post by admitting that the following is pure speculation. Let me also note that folk etymologies are notoriously inaccurate, that Mexican-food origin stories are frequently ludicrous, and that this mini-essay might be the most ludicrously inaccurate history of a Mexican foodstuff yet.

Yet...refry this attempt at trying to discover the origins of the chimichanga by bringing up the Chinese.

Next to the margarita, no Mexican food item has a more contentious creation myth than the chimichanga. Everyone agrees that it first appeared somewhere in the Arizona-Sonora borderlands, but that's about it. The two loudest claimants are the legendary Macayo's in Phoenix, which claims its owner created the chimi as a way to keep a burrito around for longer (without saying they coined the name), and El Charro Cafe in Tucson, which maintains its founder invented the crispy, wonderful burrito-child by accidentally tossing a burrito in the fryer, and--wanting to yell some derivative of chingar but noticing kids nearby--yelled "Chimichanga!" instead.

Both explanations are weak salsa. But in April, someone sent a fascinating letter to the Arizona Daily Star regarding an article they had done about the origins of the chimichanga. He claimed that his wife's Sonoran family had been eating chimichangas in deepest, darkest Sonora since the early 1900s, calling them "chivichangas" (the name that the dish still goes by in the state). And then this stupendous assertion:

A few years ago we told the el Charro [origin myth] to Professor Francisco Paz, a geology professor at the Universidad de Sonora, originally from Nogales. He said no, no -- they were brought into Sonora by Chinese workers. Often Chinese men married Mexican women who tried to cook Chinese food for their husbands. Chivichanga has no linguistic roots in Spanish, and was likely as close as Mexican ears could capture the Chinese name for it.

Have Mexican food scholars been going at the origins of the chimichanga the wrong way all these years? Fact is, the word "chimichanga" has no roots in Spanish whatsoever. "Chimi" means nothing by itself; "changa" is a female monkey in Mexican Spanish, but seems superfluous here. The closest cognate in the Hispanic world is the Argentine chimichurri, itself a word with a disputed origin (more on that in a bit).

But, given the Daily Star letter, what about if we broke up "chimichanga" into syllables, then tried to find cognates in Cantonese, the language of the Chinese who settled in Sonora and Baja California in the early 20th century? Doing that unveils a possible answer that isn't as far-fetched as it originally seems.


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79 comments
real.tijuana
real.tijuana

Here in Baja California (also in Sonora), the fried spring roll is called "chun kun". There's no egg in it, too expensive.


On the other hand, the word "chivichanga" (or "chimichanga" if you wish) is consistent to the phonology of Cahita, the language family of the Yaqui and Mayo tribes that has enriched Sonoran Spanish with such words as "bichicoris" and "guacavaqui", so it might be worthwhile to cast your linguistic net over the central area of Sonora and see what you can dredge in.

flor.sanroman
flor.sanroman

I have no idea but that was a fun read and now tengo un hambre!  I once looked up "champurrado" and found out Filipinos have a chocolate rice pudding with a similar name.  I read speculation that the etymology might also have reached southern Japan and "chanpuru" in Okinawa is a kind of stir fry dish.   Globalism is hilarious.

mikelaw
mikelaw

I know that the Chimichanga was in Mexicali in the early 1950s.  I remember going to Mexicali as a child and being surprised to see Chinese restaurants (in 1950s L.A. you had to go to Chinatown to get Chinese food).  I also had my 1st fried burrito in Mexicali although I didn't know what it was called.

FoodiePanda
FoodiePanda

I'm playing with the word as well and can say that "chim" comes across as "jeen" which is "fried" in Cantonese.  Working on the rest of the word...

Ezra Frida
Ezra Frida

La comida tipica de Mexicali: comida china

20ftjesus
20ftjesus topcommenter

This reminds of this little place in Isla Vista that had the BEST chimi evar.  Giant flour tortilla stuffed with way too much shredded lettuce and beef strips that they pan-fried in a big pizza oven.  The water from the lettuce steamed the chimi from the inside.  Crazy.  They served it with chili arbol sauce that would blow your head off.  Pitchers of beer for pennies.  Heaven.

Noemi Barajas
Noemi Barajas

Wait that pic looks amazing who created that beauty

Noemi Barajas
Noemi Barajas

Caesar salad is Mexican food and fettuccini Alfredo is American food

Jerry Vazquez
Jerry Vazquez

We gave the world chocolate and Chile and corn and tequila. We have the worlds most pretiest women. Nothing else maters

lonhall
lonhall

We may never know the origins, but we certainly know the destination! BURP!!

Juan Espinoza
Juan Espinoza

The chimichanga was invented in the Chinese province of chin gao wei. Sometime during the 1st century.

Kanani Fong
Kanani Fong

What I like about OC Weekly is that they know how to make everyone hungry

Olde Mæn
Olde Mæn

rumor has it that it was invented by a mexican with citizenship in china that lived in paris while studying abroad in germany and wanted to make something that sounded like schnitzel to sell to the german colonialists upon returning to Chihuahua.

Henry Ruiz
Henry Ruiz

There is a strong tie between Mexicans and Asians so it makes sense some food dishes would intermingle.

Robin LaGrand
Robin LaGrand

I have been eating them for at least 30- 40 years....I believe that the are a Sonoran mexi-indian dish.

Michael Jarrell
Michael Jarrell

Living in Arizona,I have always heard the Tucson story.

Lorenzo M. Guerrero
Lorenzo M. Guerrero

Thank you.....looked it up...... long time ago I was told the story that a Chinese woman was found on the beach in western Mexico....she was dressed in very elaborate clothing and that that type of clothing was adapted by many women....finally evolving into the typical China Poblana clothing of today.... perhaps another legend.

Lynn Maners
Lynn Maners

Fun speculation, but how many Chinese men married Mexican women? Old church/civil records should yield a rough estimate.

Ask a Mexican
Ask a Mexican

Don't forget, though, that Sonora is also the home of gargantuan tortillas!

BobLoblawsLawBlog
BobLoblawsLawBlog

The Chinese invented spaghetti, why not? Any foord that doesn't come from the British Isles (with the exception of pasties) is fine by me.

Lamano Conpelos
Lamano Conpelos

La primera chimichanga, fue puro error en un Restauran Mexicano en Arizona estados unidos.......no son originales de ningun Estado de Mexico. same with nachos and burritos those are not traditional from any mexican state either, Sinaloa, Sonora, Durango and northern region of Durango eat this, but it was an idea brought from the neighbor country, so no mexican invention here no chinese manufacturing here either, Nevertheless are tasty, it is not something common you will eat in Mexico (in general). In other words the name is not mexican either.

MJ Patiño
MJ Patiño

Most Cantonese food is fried...some of he best cooks of Mexican cuisine are Chino's.

Nati C. Poder
Nati C. Poder

It sounds pretty crazy, but one bit that may be on your side is that burritos used to be smaller. I remember when I was a kid a burrito was supposed to be something you could roll up and hold in your hand to eat on the go if needed. Nowadays people are used to giant-ass burritos which has also spilled over into chimichanga preparation. But... a smaller burrito that was fried would bear a pretty close resemblance to a fat egg roll. If you could make a case for smaller flour tortillas similar in size to maiz tortillas being more predominant in that region of Sonora back in the day then that might actually lend credence to this line of thought.

fishwithoutbicycle
fishwithoutbicycle topcommenter

I can't hear "chimichanga" without it conjuring up a scene from a certain sitcom I'm ashamed to admit I've watched...

"We spent all our money on jello shots and CHIMICHANGAS!" 


Cool article, Gustavo! :-)



Rynae Green
Rynae Green

Dwayne The-Wheels Wynn.. ok i am done

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