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It may have risen to popularity thanks to chef Nobu Matsuhisa and the likes of Ferran and Albert Adria with Pakta - a Peruvian and Japanese themed restaurant in Barcelona - but Nikkei cuisine, the food that inspired the Adria’s to open their restaurant, dates back between 80-100 years.
In 1889, around 7,000 Japanese workers, invited over by the promise of jobs, came to Peru on special two year work contracts. They helped to farm, mainly sugarcane, and build the country's economy. Once the two years were up, many workers decided to stay in Peru, forming families, integrating with society, and especially where food is concerned.
One of these families were the Tsumuras and it’s thanks to this migration that Mitsuhuru Tsumura (affectionately known as Micha), a chef and one of the leading young ambassadors of Nikkei cuisine around the world, opened his Maido restaurant in Peru's capital, Lima.
He worked in Japan and the U.S before opening Maido, which sits at 11th on Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants List, a place that serves an avant-garde Nikkei menu that mixes Peruvian ingredients with Japanese techniques on top of modern magic, a lot of flavor and a sprinkle of fun. Dishes such as liquid nitrogen ceviche (picture below) take all the ingredients of Peru, the slick and ultra clean techniques of Japan and the deep culinary understanding of modern gastronomy.
Since opening the restaurant in 2009, Micha has researched the history of Nikkei cuisine across Peru, documenting his findings in a book published in 2013, made available to all via a free digital download.
Nikkei is a cuisine that's often mislabeled as fusion but it runs much deeper than that, as Micha explains, it all began after the initial two year work contracts started to run out. “These people opened businesses with the aim of catering for Peruvians. They opened in their homes and no one did Japanese cuisine - there wasn’t a market for it, they had to cook Peruvian food but they started to add their own little touches. Taking dishes normally served with meat and changing the base of the dish to fish. 50 years ago no one in Peru ate Octopus - the fishermen would throw them away. You would go to the beach and see all these octopus on the floor and the Japanese would go and pick them up.” He calls this 'stage one'.
"These small changes, adding Japanese technique to existing Peruvian dishes is the early beginning.” The changes were subtle, almost unnoticeable at first. For example, Minoru Kunigami, who is credited as opening Lima’s first Nikkei restaurant, La Buena Muerte, would add lime to ceviche just before serving. Micha explains that with Japanese chefs you would find this ceviche, “made at the moment, with some ginger and a little seaweed - not the usual way ceviche was made." These small adjustments paved the way for a unique cultural merging on the plate.
It’s a slow process that, as Micha says, has played out in three stages.“The second stage came when you had companies like Toyota and Mitsubishi coming to Peru, they bring their staff who want Japanese food. We’re talking around 35 years ago, these Japanese chefs who couldn’t get all the ingredients they needed so they had to use, and be creative, with Peruvian ingredients. This was Japanese with Peruvian flavours"
Stage three of Nikkei is the stage we’re currently in. What Micha defines as,”the union of two styles that is intentional, no longer out of necessity.” A cuisine that’s grown with the culture, slowly evolving with new steps along the way.
It’s a common misconception to think that Nikkei is country specific, only occurring in Peru, but this is not the case. It just so happens that, for a number factors, Peruvian and Japanese cuisine work together in perfect harmony. Micha says it’s down to fundamental ingredient pairings, “chili with soy is the perfect combination - if you think about the DNA of a cuisine, it’s the foundation of a cuisine - like tomato and olive oil.” He argues that this, alongside the fact that Peruvians and Japanese both eat lots of rice, has helped the country’s flavours marry in the kitchen.
There’s another reason offered for why Nikkei cuisine has thrived in Peru by Isabel Álvarez, a sociologist and expert on Peruvian cuisine, who says: “Like Japan, Peru has a millennia-old history. We are two great, ancient civilisations with two major culinary traditions. That balance of powers, so to speak, allowed for adaptation to transform into dynamism; it helped the conversation flow, opposites attracted and complemented one another, and neither of the two sides absorbed the other to the point where one disappeared.”
Micha admits that Nikkei is in its infancy and there’s still a long way to go - a truly exciting prospect for a chef who wants to continue playing with this balance in the kitchen. “The concept is still maturing but the work is still needed to live the evolution of the cuisine. People, even in Peru, are still just starting to know what Nikkei is, they have eaten it without knowing it, they love it but don’t know the origins.”
On top of this work, he’s researching new ingredients such as Peru’s huge bank of potatoes and working on ways of extracting Umami from Peruvian ingredients - just another small step in the development of Nikkei cuisine in Peru. Part of the fun is that no one really knows how the cuisine will develop, but Micha hopes to one day be able to represent Nikkei back in Japan. “My dream would be to open a Peruvian style Nikkei place in Tokyo, but we have to wait a while for this to happen, at least ten more years.” As I said above, Nikkei is a slow process.