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São Paulo is a sprawling megalopolis that couldn’t be farther away from the clichés often associated with Brazil. If its food scene is kaleidoscopic and hard to categorize, three cuisines are clearly dominant: grilled meats (churrasco), Italian and…. Japanese! It may be hard to believe but São Paulo is a sushi capital that rivals New York – and boasts the largest population of Japanese descendants outside of Japan. Immigrants started arriving in 1908 and settled mostly in the Liberdade district. Soon followed the first Japanese restaurants and food shops, which then multiplied as more and more immigrants settled there. Today their descendants, known as nissei, number 1.3 million statewide.
By the Eighties they had already spread beyond Liberdade and moved to other discricts. As a result, nowadays there is Japanese food to be had at thousands of spots around São Paulo and it’s seen as a stable and a typical local food. Sushi platters even grace most steakhouse buffets while all-you-can-eat sushi joints are hugely popular among diners on a budget.
FINE DINING COUNTERS
At the top end of the scale are the city’s best Japanese restaurants, usually run and frequented by nissei. The best known of the lot is Shin Zushi. Owner Mrs Miyuki Mizumoto sits at the cash while her sons Nobu and Ken prepare exquisite tasting menus for the lucky few that snag seats at the counter. Specialties include house-cured mullet roe (karasumi) lightly charred then thinly-sliced and marinated salmon roe.
R. Afonso de Freitas, 169 - Paraíso, São Paulo
Edson Yamashita, a cousin of the Mizumoto boys, is the chef-owner of the very high-end Ryo, in the ritzy Itaim district. The excellence of the cuisine is on par with Shin Zushi but the presentation of the dishes goes even a notch or two higher – it is no wonder that Ryo is aiming for its second Michelin star. Some of the ingredients are rare and flown in from Japan, such as wasabi root, grated freshly. Recently, a renovation eliminated all the tables in the dining room and only eight counter seats remain, as is common at Tokyo’s top-notch sushi temples. Yamashita still buys all his fish himself before sunrise, assuring the best possible quality.
R. Pedroso Alvarenga, 665 - Itaim Bibi, São Paulo
Fusion-y vs. Tradition
Another highly-respected sushi master, Jun Sakamoto is the pioneer of the luxury sushi tasting. Since 2000 his eponymous restaurant has been known for serving ultra traditional nigiris and sashimis of the highest level. He competes with several newer Japanese restaurants that break with tradition and blend East and West. Perennial favourite Nagayama, for example – which has outposts around town and in Rio - specializes in new-style sushi like tuna and foie gras niguiri and spicy rolls.
R. Lisboa, 55 - Pinheiros, São Paulo
R. Bandeira Paulista, 369 - Itaim Bibi, São Paulo
Generally speaking, the fusion-y Japanese eateries like Nagayama are livelier and frequented by a younger crowd. That’s also the case at Makoto, a relatively new arrival installed at the posh Cidade Jardim mall, and Michelin-starred Kosushi, which boasts one of the most beautiful dining rooms in São Paulo.
Shopping Cidade Jardim (9539,01 km), São Paulo
R. Viradouro, 139 - Itaim Bibi, São Paulo
Some foodies who frequent the traditional spots like Shin Zushi, Jun Sakamoto and Ryo may dismiss the ever more numerous new-style Japanese spots as not being like “the real thing”. Yet the food that the latter serve - Japanese dishes adapted to Brazilian tastes using tropical fruits, cream cheese and other Western ingredients – is in a category of its own. Think of nipo-Brazilian cuisine as plancha-seared buttery shiitake and shimeji, sashimi laced with truffle oil, big hand rolls loaded with raw chopped fish and cream cheese and banana tempura with ice cream.
As improbable as it may seem, this is the kind of food that locals crave when going out to eat with family and friends, much more so than traditional Brazilian recipes.