A journey into the new trend of fine dining combining Japanese techniques with local Peruvian ingredients.
Japan: Minimalist, neat, quiet. Peru: Colourful, chaotic, festive. In the middle, the ocean. Yet more than a century ago, these two ancient cultures have met and never brake up. At least when comes to gastronomic traditions.
Peru boasts the second largest Japanese community in the world (following Brazil). The most obvious manifestation of the union these so diverse cultures has been expressed in the kitchen. Miso soup with palm hearts and chili, smoked pig nighiri... it sounds as something crazy, but it's the tastiest crazy thing you can imagine. Nikkei's cuisine is pure fusion, in the best sense of the word. A fusion of two extremes, two gourmet characters that find common points to develop and sublimate.
Thanks to the keen eye of Adrià brothers, who in 2013 opened Pakta, a restaurant in Barcelona where Japanese-Peruvian cuisine is the basis for culinary experimentation, the Nikkei finally crossed the borders of its native country to spread to the world. A success, of course. But let's start from the beginning.
First act: The meeting.
It is 1899. Trade agreements between Peru and Japan make some Japanese families move to Andean territory for a two-year farming work program. The migration has officially started and, year after year, more and more Japanese people cross the ocean to seek their fortune. It is no coincidence that Nikkei in Japanese means emigrant.
Second Act: Fusion.
It's hard to find Japanese ingredients in Peru at the beginning of the century. Even if it was nothing sophisticated: the Japanese were looking for everyday cooking ingredients, for the homemade dishes that were handed over in time. So, Japanese emigrants, to feel a little more at home, began to apply their techniques to traditional Peruvian dishes and local ingredients such as lime, corn, Aji peppers and potatoes.
Third act. The explosion.
Today Nikkei cuisine has exploded onto the scene. Thirty-five years ago, Japanese corporations opened their first subsidiaries in Peru. The wealthy and well-educated Japanese managers wanted to eat well and wanted the dishes of their country: the Japanese Peruvian chefs developed them using the local ingredients available. The Nikkei debuted in the fine dining scene.
Today, the descendants of the early Japanese immigrants are proud to be Nikkei, such as Mitsuharu Tsumura, the golden boy of this culinary culture and the chef of Maido, in Lima. In 2017 Maido climbed to the eighth place among San Pellegrino’s World's 50 Best Restaurants, and today it is the undisputed top of Nikkei cuisine, here chef’s traditions meet modern technique, at times molecular, never forgetting a fundamental principle: Food must be a joy for soul and body.
Mixing Aji Peruvian peppers, ponzu and soy sauce? It is not just possible but an extraordinary combination. "Aji, ponzu, soy sauce, lime. They are ingredients that seem to be made for each other, "explains Mitsuharu Tsumura. "There are so many Japanese dishes with Peruvian influences, and vice versa."
"Let's take ceviche: Nikkei chefs have revolutionized it 20 years ago," explains Mitsuharu. Ceviche is a fish-based dish, marinated for hours in the tiger leche, lime-based marinade with, onion and coriander. Why not treat it like it does in Japan, stirring with the sauce at the last moment, and enriching the leche de tiger with ginger and dashi?
Or the tiradito, a blatantly Japanese dish halfway between a ceviche and a sashimi of local fish, often also freshwater fish such as trout. Toshiro Konishi, a key figure in the development of Japanese-Peruvian cuisine, has made it his signature dish at his Mesa 18 restaurant in Lima to express the full potential of Nikkei cooking. At Toshiro's, always in Lima, the chef also serves sushi with avocado and masago (a local fish) eggs.
Today, young Japanese-Peruvian chefs are pulling out the old traditions out of the drawer, and – even if until a decade ago a Nikkei restaurant was very rare - we now begin to see its real expansion worldwide: Nikkei of Peru in Washington, Chotto Matte in London, Nikkei 225 in Madrid, Chicha in Berlin, Indo in Stockholm.
Nikkei cuisine is not a social integration cooking: it is a young cuisine, born just over the last century, without rigid rules and boundaries, that a group of Peruvian chefs is setting day by day. Without real traditions to limit it, and two major gastronomic cultures as a polar star, Nikkei's cuisine is one of the most alive and changing sensations today, ready to surprise us once again with its innovations.