“It's something I will never forget in my life, I dreamt about this,” says Mitsuharu Tsumura (Micha), owner of the Maido restaurant in Peru which was just announced as the winner of the Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants 2017.
“In Peru we use the word 'fashion' to describe new trends, but fashion over time fades, it goes out of style and it slowly disappears. This is not a bluff, we are not here to disappear.”
The chef is elated as he speaks, not because of the personal kick of Maido, a restaurant he opened eight years ago, winning such a coveted prize, but for what such a large scale spotlight now means for the unique style of Nikkei cooking he has championed throughout his career.
Nikkei is one of the world's youngest cuisines, between 80-100 years old – the exact timeline is vague. It's a cuisine formed thanks to a cultural collision between Japanese immigrants and the flavours they encountered when they first arrived in new countries, in this case Peru but Brazil also has a large Nikkei community. It's a cuisine in constant evolution, a cuisine with loose rules, an open mind and a few fundamentals. As Micha explains: “I see Japan as classical music, I see Peru as hard rock or heavy salsa and when you get these two mixes together you create a wonderful balance. Nikkei works because it's Yin and Yang, it's magnets with opposite poles that attract.”
For Micha and his delicious brand of cooking the only rule is the basic DNA of Nikkei, “lime with chilli and soy sauce”, from there, Micha says chefs are free to play. “You can add whatever you want, miso, nori, dashi, you can ferment things, dehydrate them – whatever you want – but that DNA of the cuisine must be there, that mix of citrus, spice and soy.”
It's this DNA, mixed with playful, densely delicious cooking that has catapulted Maido to the top of Latin America's restaurant chain. They serve a 13-course Nikkei menu that features nigiri, frozen ceviches, sandwiches, slow cooked short ribs and umami almost everywhere – all of it delivered with a healthy seasoning of fun. “It's 80/20 Peruvian food with the Japanese elements of techniques, cuts, broths, dashi, umami, knife techniques and products like miso, soy sauce and ponzu, ” says Micha when describing his own brand of Nikkei.
Nikkei is a deep part of Peruvian culture, it's just something that many locals might not even realise. “Lomo Saltado,” says Micha, “think about this dish, it's a stir fry, it's one of the top five Peruvian dishes for sure if you ask any Peruvian. It has both soy sauce and sesame oil – it's very oriental but it's ultra Peruvian. We don't see that Nikkei is part of our everyday culture, food that we eat every day in our houses.”
For Micha, a place at the very top of Latin America's restaurant chain will surely change this. “This win cements that Nikkei cuisine is here to stay, people like it and people are inspired by it – we are basically watching a cuisine develop.”
This development is happening in distinct stages (read more about them here). Stage one started with the arrival of Japanese immigrants in Peru and their adaptation of local cuisine, “the first cevicherias in Peru were Nikkei,” explains Micha. Stage two happened when the likes of Toyota and Mitsubishi arrived in Peru to open businesses – this created a demand for Japanese cuisine. The third stage – and the stage Nikkei is just leaving – is the merging of Peruvian and Japanese restaurants, sushi places serving ceviche and ceviche places serving sushi.
“Stage four is the world," says Micha. “It's not just opening Nikkei restaurants around the world, it's bigger than that, it's deeper. Go to restaurants in New York, Llama Inn, Mission Ceviche, La Mar by Diego Oka in Miami, Victoriano Lopez from La Mar in San Francisco tells me one of his best sellers is a Nigri made with salmon and yellow chili - he also has Nikkei ceviches.”
For Micha this stage is still developing and doesnt neccesarly have happen exclusively in Peruvian restaurants. “If you go to Singapore, in Thailand, in Brazil, New York – all of these restaurants around the world are starting to borrow the Nikkei style. These technique and flavours are going to develop as preparations that can be done not only in Peruvian restaurants but fine dining restaurants around the world.”
It's been a rapid rise for Micha and a rapid rise for Peru, he says that just 10 years ago there were just five Nikkei restaurants in Lima, now there are 30. A growth that will only be catalysed with the new found curiosity and attention a spot at the top of the list will surely bring.
“Young chefs will hopefully become more curious about understanding this cuisine and I hope that Peruvian food now has a bigger repertoire to play with.... When I opened Maido one of my dreams was to create something lasting. I think that immortality in a way is about what you leave here, what you leave for the next generations and I really want to leave something for the next generation of the Nikkei community around the world.”
Apart from catapulting the cuisine on to the world stage, Micha has also helped form a new Nikkei association for chefs, “we will launch the first Nikkei gastronomic festival in Peru next week,” he smiles.
He's happy, emotional, always self-effacing (he used his own acceptance speech during the awards to highlight the absence of chef Carlos Garcia from Venezuela) and full of energy for what the win now means for Nikkei cuisine and the Nikkei community in Peru.
“It's something nice for the Nikkei community in Peru... it's been very important in the development of Peruvian culture in Lima. It's nice because, in a way, after we had the Japanese president Fujimori (currently in jail for Human Rights offences committed in office) there was a bit of a rejection of the Nikkei community in a way. We as Nikkeis didn't feel very good about what was happening, food has done so much for Peru in bringing together the country, just look what we did with farmer and making them important, now I hope the Nikkei community start to feel proud again.”
For Micha it's all about continuing the growth of Nikkei, he wants to watch international chefs take on the mantle, to play with the loose rules and add Nikkei style in their own way. I ask about stage five, what is it? When will it happen? It turns out stage five comes in the form of one of Micha’s dreams.
“The last restaurant I want to open, the final one – when I say 'this is it' – it's going to be a Nikkei place in Japan. I want to do a Nikkei style tavern, this will also be my next project in Lima, a big Nikkei tavern but not a fine dining experience, something bigger than Maido, more approachable for price, shared plates, taking our cuisine to a more casual level for a wider audience. I also want to have a big grill, I love BBQ and it's something I haven't done yet, with Yakitori and Anticucho we can easily do Nikkei. It would be amazing to create something that really takes the Peruvian vibe over to Japan, that will be stage five.”