Was the Chimichanga Invented by Chinese in Mexico?

Categories: Mexi Meals

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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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